Setting the standard for sustainability in pharma

Sustainability has become a crucial pillar in pharmaceutical development, with environmental concerns and resource management demanding immediate attention from organisations of all sizes and specialities.

Among those leading the sustainability charge is Samsung Biologics. In recent years, the contract development and manufacturing organisation (CDMO) has made considerable strides in advancing sustainability efforts around the world, becoming the first Korean company to receive the Terra Carta Seal in 2022 and most recently earning the prestigious EcoVadis platinum sustainability rating.

With over three decades of leadership experience spanning healthcare and informatics, James Choi – executive vice president, chief marketing officer, and head of sales support and global public affairs at Samsung Biologics – has been well-positioned to witness the evolution of environmental, social, and governance in the industry. To find out more about the company’s work, Deep Dive sat down with Choi to discuss the current and future landscape of sustainability.

Eloise McLennan:

Following the top 1% EcoVadis rating, how are you translating that into environmental and societal improvements?

James Choi: EcoVadis is a reflection of all the work that we put in to date. There are several that I could name. We’ve established an ESG committee on our board of directors. We did that several years ago, with independent board members to really make sure that we have solid governance in terms of ESG across all of our operations. Since then, we’ve been making a concerted effort to focus on ESG.

One of the things that we’re most proud of is our involvement in the Sustainable Markets Initiative (SMI). It was an initiative launched about three UN conferences ago, COP26, by the then-Prince Charles – now King Charles. He launched a task force, comprised of about 20 different industry task forces, of which health systems is one of them.

In the biopharma sector, there are three working groups: patient care pathways, digital health, and then supply chains. I am proud to say that Samsung Biologics was asked to champion the supply chains working group.

When you look at the total carbon footprint of healthcare, supply chains are about half of all of the emissions in healthcare – like 2.4 gigatons of carbon equivalent. We have a lot of work and opportunity to improve and make a difference with climate change and the health sector. We’ve been acting as champion, working with our peers and public sector companies like AstraZeneca, Novartis, GSK, Sanofi, and Merck [KGaA] to really drive these initiatives.

When you talk about the supply chain, there are so many moving parts and people involved. Where did you start?

We began by laying four large focus areas. The first was establishing supplier standards, starting with minimum standards that all of our member companies are asking our suppliers to get as a starting point.

The second is looking at green energy. How can we take the great success that we’ve had in the US and Europe with the Energize programme, for example, and use that as a model to launch similar programmes in Asia, where you don’t have as many renewable sources of energy, but where a lot of the raw materials and suppliers are located.

The third area is transport. Much of the last leg of raw materials and supplies delivery is done via carbon-intense trucking and freight. We also want to shift from air freight to sea freight. On top of that, leverage, wherever possible, green transportation corridors to reduce the overall emissions footprint in transportation. Some member companies are also looking at sustainable aviation fuel because certain parts of the business rely on air freight no matter what.

Then the last piece is leveraging more recycling, reducing waste, and water efficiency. The most recent area that we’re turning our focus towards is the heat. In chemical drug manufacturing, there’s a lot of heat used at high temperatures, which requires a green heat source.

What were the biggest challenges that you encountered and how did you overcome them?

There are a lot of challenges. I would say some of the biggest ones are that there are so many different suppliers and suppliers have different levels of maturity in their ability to get to net zero. Some of the larger suppliers have a profile similar to ours. These are large global companies in the industry that also have similar initiatives. We feel very confident that they could partner with us to get there.

Then there’s a long tail of much smaller, mid to small companies, especially in parts of Asia, that aren’t as mature and don’t have the background or the resources to really make these types of commitments to reduce their carbon footprint. Those are the ones that the SMI, especially the supply chains group, is looking to help educate, provide tools where it makes sense. Each of the member companies has supplier days to reinforce these targets and, again, to educate and to provide resources where we can.

So far, you’ve mentioned quite a few achievements. How do you measure the success of the sustainability initiatives and how do you communicate your progress?

Yes, so the first deliverable is, [the SMI] is a coalition of willing. We’re not representing all pharma or all companies within the industry, just the ones that have agreed to participate so far and have signed up to these rigorous standards. So far, we’ve launched a white paper. We did that two years ago at COP27, which laid out the manifesto for our approach of standards. Then, last year, the CEOs of all the member companies signed an open letter to our suppliers saying this is the expectation that we have if you are going to continue to partner with us to help achieve our net zero targets.

The overall progress is being tracked. We look at how many suppliers were able to get to commit to the minimum standards, but we’ve got to do it in a careful way to avoid any kind of anti-competition or collusion type laws. We make sure that we provide as many incentives and education and resources where we’re available to help the suppliers to understand why these are important and how we can together achieve net zero, which is really all of our goals.

Looking ahead, what are the biggest potential disruptions or opportunities that you see on the horizon for sustainable manufacturing and sustainable supply chains?

I think there’s potential for innovation to play a large part, obviously, to give an example, one of our suppliers of glass is looking at ways to provide the same capacity of glass vials, but with much less material. The amount of heat that it takes to form that glass is less than it was before. Little examples like that, where even a small incremental improvement in the manufacturing of a certain raw material will have its impact overall as you start adding things up and contribute to the overall reduction in carbon footprint.

Some of our member companies are looking at different ways to package certain supplies. We’re looking at ways to leverage more digital capabilities to reduce the overall carbon footprint of a certain process. I think innovation will play a huge role in helping us get to net zero.

Speaking of digital tools, how are you using technology to help you in this journey?

As an example, we’ve invested in a utility management platform that helps us to really analyse and monitor all of our energy consumption across the board and look for ways to optimise that across our operations. In fact, our newest plant, Plant 5, is going to be 20% less carbon footprint than the previous plants for the same capacity or more. That tells you that we learn through our optimisation in ways to reduce the overall carbon footprint of our operations with every plant that we expand.

Moving away from the bigger Samsung Biologics picture, if you could wave a magic wand and solve one major sustainability challenge, which one would you choose?

That’s a trick question! If I could make a magic wand, I would make everything sustainable overnight. I think, let’s say, within the bounds of reality, I would make affordable green energy more available in more places where it is needed the most because that’s exactly what it’s going to take. There are reasons why those energy sources don’t exist because of economics of supply and demand. As long as more companies that believe in this movement drive demand, that’s the financial incentive for them to make it more available and thus more affordable over time.

Finally, what advice would you give to other companies, particularly the pharma industry and biopharma industry, who are just starting their sustainability journey?

You have to start with looking at the overall footprint of your operations, looking at availability of green energy sources, and making sure that as your operations start to grow and expand, that you keep sustainability in mind to make sure that you grow with an efficient carbon footprint and not make it a bigger problem as you continue to grow.

*Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity*

About the interviewee

James Choi

James Choi is executive vice president, chief marketing officer, and head of sales support and global public affairs at Samsung Biologics. Choi has over 34 years of senior leadership experience in the healthcare and informatics industries in various roles, including information technology and security, customer service, and operations.

Prior to joining Samsung Biologics in 2014, he was CIO at Beckman Coulter’s Clinical Diagnostics and Life Sciences businesses, CIO and CTO at Altegrity, and senior director of information systems, customer services e-business technology, and site planning at Philips Healthcare.

Choi holds a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California Irvine and an MBA from the University of Southern California.

About the author

Eloise McLennan is the editor for pharmaphorum’s Deep Dive magazine. She has been a journalist and editor in the healthcare field for more than five years and has worked at several leading publications in the UK.

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