Discussions around environmental sustainability are becoming increasingly prevalent, in no small part due to the work of Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg.
With a greater focus on the area, industries can expect to face a greater number of questions regarding what action they are taking to be sustainable.
At the end of last month, Novo Nordisk announced that it was on track to meet its target of using only renewable energy across its global production network by 2020.
When in-PharmaTechnologist (IPT) spoke to Dorethe Nielsen (DN), senior director of corporate environmental strategy at Novo Nordisk, she told us that applicants to the company are increasingly asking such questions and that the company has an answer ready.
It recently invested $70m (€62m) in a solar panel field in the US, bringing its productions operations in the country to a level where they are able to use only renewable energy.
Further than this, Nielsen outlined how the company plans to have zero negative environmental impact by 2030.
IPT: Could you outline Novo Nordisk's path to becoming reliant only on renewable energy?
DN: It started back in 2004, when we set our first CO2 reduction target and, at that point in time, it was about reducing our emissions by 10%. Actually, we managed to achieve that 10-year target a couple of years ahead of time. We achieved this through a very good partnership with Ørsted, a Danish electricity supplier. We agreed to pay a premium on the electricity, to make it possible to set up a new windmill park, just off the shore in Denmark. On the other hand, they promised us that they would take a look at all our production facilities to see whether we could save energy. So, that was a win-win partnership.
In 2015, we decided that we should not only focus on our Danish production facilities but really take on a more global perspective. This was where we joined the RE100 and decided that by 2020 our target should be to be 100% powered by electricity. So, it started a number of years ago and we can actually achieve our 2020 target, with the newly signed solar agreement in the US.
IPT: Now that your 2020 target looks set to be met, what are your plans moving forward?
DN: We have a new environmental strategy called Circular for Zero, which is really about having zero negative environmental impact and we have not put a year on that target. However, we have set out a goal that by 2030, we will have zero CO2 from operations and transportation.
We will focus also on the rest of the energy that we use in our production facilities – that goes for steam and gas, for instance. We would also like to reduce the emissions from transportation, namely company costs, and business travel, and also the internal transportation we have for all our products.
We are a global company, so the plans will be very different depending on which country you are in but, for example, at our headquarters, we have just announced a new company car policy, where we will give a little premium to the employees that use an electric car.
IPT: That's obviously an example of one of the smaller steps that can be achieved – I wonder if you have any larger plans for the sustainability goal towards 2030?
DN: We have done the calculations to see where the biggest impacts are and now that we have solved the biggest impact we have, which was the electricity production, then you can say the rest is four equal pieces. One is company cars, one is business flights, one is product distribution, and the last one is the remaining energy we use at our production plants. Actually, each part has an equal size in carbon emissions.
IPT: Could you speak more on the 'circular mindset'?
DN: It goes a little back to implementing the circular economy and this could be a very good answer to how we will achieve the zero environmental impact. On this, we have defined three key points: minimising consumption, the design and production of our product, and eliminating waste.
For example, if we had a production unit that has excess material, are there any other production facilities nearby that can use that excess? We actually have a very good example in the Kalundborg symbiosis. This is location is where we have our largest production facilities in Denmark. The agreement goes back many, many years – where different companies joined together with the local governments to find a good way to use each other’s resources. This was even before somebody mentioned the circular economy, it just made good sense.
IPT: Can you tell me how the Symbiosis agreement works?
DN: Yes, for instance, in our production, we have some waste after we have produced our product. We have some waste yeast, which has a lot of potential for further use in it. So right now, we are converting that into biogas, and we send that into the natural gas network. The remaining waste from the biogas production is used as fertilizer on land.
IPT: How much is this issue discussed within the industry?
DN: We try to seek inspiration from other sectors than the pharma industry because I think it's fair to say that our industry might not be among the frontrunners. This is because we are so regulated in other aspects, so sometimes we think it's a little harder for us.
However, in terms of pharma, I do see a growing interest in sustainability, in general, but maybe that's more focused on the broader, global issues that we see at the moment, in terms of climate change, biodiversity, water scarcity, and so on.
IPT: This issue is being discussed more than ever before, particularly in the media due to Greta Thunberg. How important is it for the industry to keep up as the issue evolves?
DN: I think it's important that we step up and I think that is also why we have decided to take this bold move in order not to be left behind. Our products are in a very long pipeline and there is a long time from the initial R&D until the product hits the markets, it could take 10 to 15 years to then reach the market. Part of our strategy is to really think about how our future products will be sustainable.
IPT: Are there any unexpected benefits that have come from your sustainability goals?
DN: I think that our goals have given us a unique reputation among new employees, which is, of course, a huge benefit for us. We do get asked questions: “What are you doing, in terms of both social and environmental responsibility?” We know from young people and some of our new hires that our actions could be why they choose us as a company because they would like to work for a company with a bigger purpose – and we are already a company that helps people that are sick.
Dorethe Nielsen has worked at Novo Nordisk for six years, beginning her time as director of Global Environmental Health and Safety before moving onto becoming senior director of corporate environmental strategy. Prior to this, Nielsen worked at NNE Pharmaplan for close 12 years, ending her time there as director of project execution in Shanghai, China.