Want to Build an Evergreen Health Brand? Don't Overlook the Green
While sustainability and climate change are becoming a larger focus for companies at the corporate level, including pharma companies like AstraZeneca, which just launched their new Science Can campaign, these efforts have not yet trickled down to business planning conversations for most brands. However, responding to climate change must be a strategic imperative for any brand aiming to meet customers' evolving needs and values, while fulfilling environmental, social and governance objectives.
Climate change is shifting the landscape for pharmaceutical and biotech brands, and the impact is only just beginning. From infectious diseases to chronic diseases and mental health, climate change threatens to undermine the past 50 years of gains in public health, which is why the United Nations' 13th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG13) has called on the global community to take urgent action. There's no doubt that responding to climate change is the greatest opportunity for brands to positively affect public health in the 21st century.
For infectious diseases, we see this playing out in countries like Pakistan, where dengue, malaria and typhoid cases have surged after disastrous flooding following a record monsoon season. Climate change can precipitate the emergence of new zoonotic diseases like Covid-19, and continue spreading existing diseases like Ebola to new regions of the globe. Even sexually transmitted diseases like HIV have been aggravated by climate change. As if these communicable health threats weren't concerning enough, climate change has the power to unleash a "Pandora's box" of ancient deadly pathogens that have been frozen in time for centuries, like the recent anthrax outbreak in the Arctic circle.
However, infectious diseases are not our only threat: Chronic diseases are growing and becoming more difficult to manage as our planet transforms into a more toxic, allergenic and carcinogenic version of itself. Wildfires alone trigger cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cancer and adverse birth outcomes. A multitude of cancers are also intensifying with climate change from skin cancers to gastrointestinal cancers as our ozone layers deplete and food consumption habits shift. Mariah Landry, RN and member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "I have witnessed how climate change shows up in the ER … patients don't arrive stating they were there due to illness from 'climate change,' but as nurses, we know that climate change is a clear factor."
The mental health and neurological consequences of climate change are just as widely felt. Anxiety, depression, PTSD and suicide ideation are seen after natural disasters. And these mental health impacts are not short lived; flood survivors report ongoing mental health challenges, including anxiety and panic attacks, years after a disaster. Mood disorders, schizophrenia and dementia are also rising as our planet heats. And new mental health conditions, like ecoanxiety and solastalgia, are emerging. Rising temperatures are also aggravating neurological conditions like epilepsy, which McCann Health London and McCann Health New Jersey brought attention to in "The EnvironMental Issue" campaign for charity EpiCC (Epilepsy Climate Change).
While all of humanity is threatened by climate change, it is disproportionately impacting, and further disadvantaging, historically marginalized people of color in low-income communities and countries. We see this in the U.S. through discriminatory policies that have left Black and immigrant communities more vulnerable to environmental toxins and adverse climate events. This is also seen globally as lower- to middle-income countries grapple with greater burdens from climate change, despite being lower contributors to the climate crisis. Take Haiti, for example, which is one of the world's most vulnerable countries to climate change, yet accounts for less than 0.03 percent of global carbon emissions.
Ironically, if the health sector were a country, it would be the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Health companies can turn a new stone by implementing sustainable activities from production to manufacturing. Some healthcare companies are already stepping up to this challenge like Novartis, which has started recycling and reusing solvents that are used for medicine production and can save 5 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2030.
Beyond the global health impacts of climate change, consumer trends also show a desire for brands to respond. Forty-one percent of consumers believe they should share equal responsibility for sustainability with brands, but they want those brands to lead the way, and this is becoming more and more important to younger generations. Not only will a focus on climate change soon be table stakes for brands, it's also good business. Championing climate justice can set brands apart competitively, and consumers are willing to pay more for them.
What can health brands do?
Climate change is happening and threatening the livelihood of humanity, and each brand has a role to play. These four steps can help your brand champion climate justice now:
Immerse: Understand how climate change is impacting your category and patient population. Is climate change causing your disease state to reach new heights and/or geographic locations? What might your category look like in 10-, 20- and 50-years time? Are there historically underserved populations that are facing disproportionate risks from climate change in your category? Immersing yourself in the current and future climate realities of your target audience will unlock new knowledge of unmet needs and opportunities for meaningful action.
Plan: Integrate climate justice into your brand's strategic imperatives. While gaining knowledge is critical, what consumers really want to see are brands that live and breathe climate justice. Partner with health communication experts to define your strategic opportunities for action and develop communication plans that articulate these efforts to your target audiences in a way that is authentic and believable.
Respond: Respond to climate crises swiftly and with meaningful action. For brands fighting the spread of infectious diseases, this may include responding to natural disasters that precipitate infectious disease outbreaks through partnerships, donations and/or new initiatives. Brands that involve chronic diseases may look to drive awareness and education about managing comorbidities in the age of climate change, so that those with pre-existing conditions and their doctors recognize their risks and can take preventative measures when possible. Mental health and wellness brands may want to partner with local community organizations after climate disasters and/or pioneer new initiatives related to ecoanxiety or solastalgia.
Commit: Make an ongoing commitment to assess and evaluate your brand's impact. This means going beyond responding to climate crises to critically assessing your brand's climate footprint and what your brand's legacy should be in the fight against climate change. Don't consider climate justice a one and done pursuit; this requires continuous effort and action that will serve the greater good, and your brand, too. Consider mapping out your brand and customer journeys to identify "climate pain points" where you could implement new strategies to enhance the customer experience, climate equity and the sustainability of your brand.
By addressing climate change and championing climate justice, health brands can forge a greater impact on public health and create lasting brand resonance through the process. It's not too late to become a climate-conscious brand—let’s get started.