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Learning from Global Corporate Leaders in Lab Sustainability

These corporate leaders in sustainability set ambitious goals and leverage innovation and passion to achieve them

by
Rachel Brown, MSc

Rachel Brown, MSc, is science writer/coordinator for Lab Manager.  Rachel holds a BSc from the University of Victoria and an MSc from the University of Alberta in systematics and...

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"The greatest danger to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” – Robert Swan

Public and stakeholder demand for leadership in environmental, social, and governance (ESG) is stronger than ever in today’s literal and figurative climate, but what does that look like in practice? Consensus holds that sustaining long-term growth hinges on good corporate citizenship. Compelling ESG commitments, increasingly mandated, have taken center stage in strategic management. But as market and legislative pressure increases, so do expectations of greater transparency and accountability surrounding ESG goals, actions, and reporting. 

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Leaders in ESG and sustainability are problem solvers. They examine guidance from intergovernmental organizations, scientific evidence, and relevant social and environmental risks, and set forward-looking, ambitious targets requiring innovative approaches. Two such leaders, Biogen and PepsiCo, have emphasized lab sustainability transformation. 

Sustainability in labs is a prominent concern, given their notorious energy and resource consumption and plastic waste generation, though it is inextricably linked to other ESG elements. Sustainability goals are often driven by environmental issues, which are “deeply linked to public health and equity,” explains Tooba Gilani, senior associate with Environmental Health & Safety at Biogen. They also impact governance and financial risk. While addressing stakeholder concerns, Gilani continues, “Sustainability efforts can spur operational efficiencies and innovation.”

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Tooba Gilani, senior associate with Environmental Health & Safety at Biogen.
Credit: Tooba Gilani

Ambitious targets

PepsiCo’s sustainability action is rooted in their larger PepsiCo Positive (pep+) transformation, which serves to integrate ESG throughout the business and supply chain. This ESG approach aims to “inspire positive change for the planet and people we serve,” according to Virginia Morris, PhD, R&D Analytical Technical senior manager at PepsiCo. It focuses in part on sustainability issues relating to water stewardship, carbon emissions, agriculture, and packaging. Example initiatives include PepsiCo’s transition in 2020 to 100 percent alternative energy in US direct operations and their targets of achieving net-zero by 2040, becoming net water positive by 2030, and extending regenerative agriculture to 7 million acres by 2030. Practically, Morris says, integrating pep+ into R&D, Design, and Insights translates to programs that support a circular economy, like more efficient resource use in labs and employing recyclable, compostable, or reusable materials everywhere possible.  

Biogen’s sustainability programs are rooted in the company’s purpose “to pioneer science for the betterment of humanity,” according to Gilani, acknowledging the health impacts of fossil fuels and that “the burdens of climate change are not equally experienced.” Since achieving carbon neutrality in 2014, Biogen has paid close attention to the evolving climate science, updating their Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives™ initiative with guidance from the IPCC and Science Based Targets Initiative and evidence-based sustainability goals. These goals include going beyond net-zero to zero emissions by 2040, transitioning to an all-electric vehicle fleet by 2027, and creating and integrating sustainable drug development principles. Additional sustainability measures have included diverting 100 percent of waste from landfills and reducing water usage and waste generation.

Photo of Virginia Morris, PhD
Virginia Morris, PhD, R&D Analytical Technical senior manager at PepsiCo.
Credit: Virginia Morris

Innovation driving sustainability

Innovation is critical to solving sustainability challenges, Morris notes. Leading in sustainability means pushing the front lines of development, finding scalable solutions, and troubleshooting large-scale deployment of new technologies. “Driving impact at scale requires collaborative, cross-sector efforts,” says Gilani, pointing to challenges around global market readiness of electric vehicles as an example. Amidst their transition to all-electric fleets, Biogen is navigating logistical hurdles relating to maintenance, battery range, and charging station infrastructure, including seasonal impact on batteries, the installation of home charging stations for drivers, and charging solutions for renters. “Even more innovative concepts are in the early stages of development,” Gilani observes, and will require considerably more groundwork to deploy. 

PepsiCo’s innovation processes incorporate pep+ to maintain focus on sustainability, for both in-house development of new technologies and external collaborations, says Morris. For example, their External Innovation team in R&D develops strategic partnerships to innovate across their value chain from agriculture to consumer experience. PepsiCo Labs, their technology venturing arm, identifies breakthrough tech start-ups to develop new solutions for a global scale. “We are always looking for ways to leverage breakthrough technology where it can help solve business challenges and particularly where we can advance our sustainability goals,” explains Morris. 

Another PepsiCo program, Sustainable from the Start, estimates the environmental impact of a product early in the design phase. “It also provides guidelines on reducing impacts with alternative ingredients, improved packaging, and more sustainable technology and distribution,” says Morris. These details then inform decisions made in the business process.

On the other end of the scale, Biogen is developing “a state-of-the-art integrated model of how various climate actions impact public health,” Gilani says, in collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The model will “help organizations prioritize their sustainability efforts to deliver co-benefits for health and the economy.” 

Harnessing the power of grassroot passion

The passion and commitment of employees is a common thread amongst companies leading in the ESG space. Empowering staff to enact meaningful change is transformative to the business process, along with making for a happier and more engaged workforce. A recent talent retention survey from Benevity, a donation- and grant-management platform, found that employee involvement in corporate purpose programs was correlated with greater retention of workers aged 45 and younger, with up to 52 percent reduction in turnover.

Equipping employees with the means to enact change, including training, tools, and methodologies, helps the company meet evolving needs and can amplify the impact of initiatives, Gilani reflects. By working “to inspire and engage our employees to mobilize and innovate,” Biogen is able to deliver on their goals. She refers to the rapid growth of Biogen’s employee resource network, ourIMPACT, formed by a passionate grassroots community focused on climate, health, and equity as an example. 

PepsiCo supports a thriving grassroots sustainability community that forms a global network of around 100 Green Teams spanning R&D centers, plants, and offices. The company Green Teams enable members to have a direct impact on sustainability in their workplace and community, according to Morris. The teams are “one way we are harnessing the power of the grassroot passion,” Morris says, noting the importance of the meaning and purpose behind the work for the employees involved. “Achieving our pep+ vision requires that we continuously challenge ourselves.” To that end, PepsiCo has two programs that empower employees to drive local change: the Site Sustainability Fund for facility sustainability improvements and the Positive Agriculture Outcomes Fund that provides teams with funding “to design and scale innovative solutions that contribute to” PepsiCo’s regenerative agriculture initiatives. 

The grassroots sustainability initiatives within both companies have driven engagement in the My Green Lab certification program. Recognized by the UN’s Race to Zero campaign as key to driving systemic change in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, the My Green Lab certification sets the “global gold standard for laboratory sustainability best practices.” 

PepsiCo R&D teams across Europe have participated in the certification program to learn how to work more sustainably in the lab and make a tangible impact. Since engaging with My Green Lab, Morris says their scientists have been inspired to seek out new innovative solutions for further increasing lab sustainability. “Our teams have really seen the value in making these changes and there has been great passion, energy, and commitment from everyone involved in the transformation.”

Biogen classifies the participation as a part of empowering their scientists to drive change and create a sustainable lab culture, Gilani says. Their accomplishments are also a source of pride for the company—within the first two years, 80 percent of Biogen’s labs participated in the My Green Lab certification program, with 92 percent of those achieving a gold rating or higher and over half achieving the highest level, green.

Takeaways

Corporations adopting bold, sustainability-driven initiatives are facing major challenges. “Combating climate change, empowering growers to adopt regenerative agriculture practices, implementing solutions that use resources more efficiently, and creating a circular future for packaging are major challenges impacting the industry at large and are problems that cannot be solved overnight,” reflects Morris. Both Morris and Gilani agree that additional, innovative technological and infrastructure advancements that can fully scale are crucial to continued progress in sustainability, urging action. In closing, Morris charges, “We must lean into disruptive solutions and technologies and leverage the power of collaboration and partnership to make true progress in this space.”