Frameworks for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting across sectors have long been focused on environmental sustainability, with plans that address carbon neutrality in alignment with goals set forth in the Paris Accords.

But with mandates like the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), which came into force in January 2024 for sectors like pharma, the scope of sustainability reporting for large organisations is continuing to grow.

Initiatives under social sustainability to address healthcare equity and access are of particular importance, with research by Deloitte forecasting that, if left unaddressed, such issues could eclipse $1trn in annual spending for the US health system by 2040. In addition, studies suggest that social determinants of health (SDoH) account for up to 55% of people’s health outcomes.

In 2023, Boehringer Ingelheim implemented matrices to track the progress being made under several sustainability initiatives, including those designed to support underserved communities’ access to healthcare in the US and globally.

Kelly Rotkewicz, executive director, sustainability, US strategy & operations, is a key figure in Boehringer Ingelheim’s drive to become more sustainable. In an exclusive interview with Pharmaceutical Technology, Rotkewicz discussed the company’s sustainability framework, the complexity of social initiatives, and how it measures the targets it has set in place.

Ross Law (RL): How does Boehringer Ingelheim think about sustainability?

Kelly Rotkewicz (KR): For us, sustainability means investing in the health of people and animals, the future of our planet, and people’s potential. And this is not just about sustainable development; it’s about responsible business that we can leave to the next generation. We recognise our sustainability efforts are the right thing to do, but they also make us more competitive and give us our licence to operate. 

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Kelly Rotkewicz, executive director, sustainability, US strategy & operations at Boehringer Ingelheim

The three main goals that we are aiming to achieve by 2030 are to become carbon neutral in all our global operations, protect clean water and reduce our water footprint, and halve our natural resource footprint across our value chain.

In the past few decades, Boehringer has made substantial progress in the area of carbon neutrality across all of our US facilities. Two of our sites in the US – in Gainesville, Georgia, and our largest site in North America, our human pharma headquarters in Ridgefield, Connecticut, became certified carbon neutral this year. 

Additionally, we have goals around water stewardship and reducing our water use. We are the very first pharmaceutical company to achieve a water stewardship certification in our biopharma plant in Fremont, California.

RL: What challenges exist for pharma companies in measuring sustainability targets?

KR: Providing data to prove carbon neutrality is fairly straightforward. But when you get into initiatives working to expand healthcare, measuring progress becomes more complex.

Under our goal to expand healthcare access in underserved communities and maximise the potential in the communities where we live and work, our global leadership around sustainable development took time to think about the definition of what means to be a member of an underserved community. They

Our global leadership looked at factors including ethnicity, location, age, and gender expression, and came up with matrices to validate whether a person would be considered a member of an underserved community. Now, we have several programs that are focused on benefitting people within that underserved community, including our patient assistance program through our Boehringer Cares Foundation and product donations. We track the number of people who benefit from such programs. 

Globally, we have a program for stroke patients called Angels that operates in Europe, which works with hospitals to improve stroke outcomes. And they do things like measure how many steps it is from the front of the ER to the CAT scan. 

One thing I’m particularly proud of at Boehringer and that we talk a lot about, is how we prevent greenwashing and can stand behind what we say that we are aiming to achieve. A lot of rigour goes into our metrics so that we are confidently able to show what we are achieving under these pillars. 

RL: What sets Boehringer apart on sustainability in comparison to other pharma companies?

KR: Part of our guiding principle is to think in generations, hence the name of our program: Sustainable Development for Generations. When you compare us to other pharmaceutical companies that are traded on Wall Street, I truly believe we have a longer view, and we have a clearly defined and holistic approach to sustainable development across our three pillars.

Our partnership with the University of Georgia, called Sustainable Development Excellence, is a big part of what has led me to this conclusion. The 14-week education program was developed for Boehringer employees.

Overall, our program has educated and equipped our employees to really understand deeply about sustainability across our three pillars. People from all over the company and across business functions, including our animal health, biopharma, and human pharma businesses have gone through this program. Subsequently, they go back to their departments and can influence, at a grassroots level, how we are approaching sustainable development.

Having a clearly defined, holistic approach to the dissemination of sustainability throughout all corners of Boehringer Ingelheim’s operations has, I believe, really made us a leader in sustainability within the pharma industry.

RL: How did the different pillars—More Green, More Health and More Potential come to be developed? What do you see their future development as being?

KR: We have done work around the three pillars for a number of years, but last year we conducted a materiality analysis where we looked at what was material for us as a business when it comes to sustainable development. 

We came back with nine different strategic program areas that fit under the three pillars, with minor overlap between some of them. The materiality analysis showed us that health equity and the social determinants of health and racial disparities that can get in the way of people receiving healthcare, were the most material aspects of sustainability for us.

This is quite a change, because some years ago our finding may well have been that More Green was our most material aspect of sustainability. More Green, of course, remains incredibly important as no healthcare company wants to be a polluter given the impact of carbon emissions and greenhouse gases have on people’s health. But in summary, what we found from the analysis was that our real focus is going to be on expanding healthcare access and addressing health equity, which falls under our More Health pillar. And that’s really a testament to how our thought process around our overall program has evolved.