Special Reports
March / April 2017

Sustainability & the Life Sciences Industry

Robert J E Bowen, dipArch RIBA
Sustainability & the Life Sciences Industry

Sustainability, also referred to as sustainable development, has, in the pharmaceutical industry, been, in the main, in the background, especially when it comes to facilities and engineering. In the few cases where dedicated individuals or companies have recognized the long-term benefits of being early adopters, it has been questioned as to its relevance. An element of this is the belief that sustainability is a fad word with short-term political relevance, or that it is just about sensible energy management at a time of high energy prices.

Well, that may seem so, but many see a wider definition and believe that adopting a sustainable policy, whether there is or is not a belief in climate change, makes for strategic relevance providing sound ethical and economic base case for operation.

Ahead of ISPE’s production of a handbook on the topic, the key pharmaceutical global players (based on Forbes’s 2016 top ten “2016 Global 2000: The World’s Largest Drug and Biotech Companies”) have produced sustainability policies that are embedded in their company policy set.

In this short article, we touch on the history and breadth of sustainability, why ISPE produced its Sustainability Handbook, give some insight into the basis the writing team adopted, the topics covered, and why it is both an important document and an essential topic.

Why An ISPE Sustainability Handbook?

ISPE’s involvement in sustainability began in 2008, when Paul Malinowski of Becton Dickinson (USA) and Nigel Lenegan of Energy and Carbon (UK) established the Sustainability Community of Practice (CoP), which has since merged with the HVAC CoP to form the HVAC and Sustainable Facilities CoP. This was followed in 2009 by the first annual Facility of the Year Award for Sustainability.

During 2013 the CoP, realizing that there was no other pharmaceutical industry–focused guidance on the topic, put forward a proposal for a Good Practice Guide, supported by a Pharmaceutical Engineering article later that year. 1 The 14-member contributing team, led by this author and Nick Haycocks of Amgen, ably guided by the ISPE in-house publications and editing team, developed a two-part document. On review, it was agreed that it was more of a handbook than a guide.

To produce a globally relevant handbook, the team opted to adopt the United Nations (UN) take on sustainability. The UN, following reports such as 1972’s “The Limits to Growth,” reacting to perceived global changes in temperature and weather patterns, as well as recognizing a reduction in finite resources and imbalancing increases in population, set up the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983. This commission, chaired by Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland—widely referred to as the Brundtland Commission—produced the highly influential report “Our Common Future” in 1987. This provided what is now considered the primary definition of sustainability: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition was adopted for the handbook.

Since 1987 the UN has held yearly conferences on sustainability and climate change. The key conference initiating action was held in Kyoto in 2002, leading to the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, setting global targets based on a 1990 baseline for the accepting countries and an expectation of improvements in many areas. The last significant conference was held in Paris, France, from 30 November to 12 December 2015, and produced the Paris Agreement, which outlined Kyoto follow-on targets aimed at global carbon neutrality by the end of this century. The primary target of the agreement is to limit the increase in global average temperature to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels with, post peak, more significant reductions based on the best available science.

This latter objective will make demands of all industrial operations. It was also, unlike Kyoto, entered into by both the United States and China. Participants agreed to meet every five years to set more ambitious targets, as required by science, and to report through use of a robust transparent and accountable reporting system very similar to our global pharmaceutical regulatory systems. These targets are significant and place a heavy onus on global political systems to ensure implementation.

To this end, our industry, as one focused on the health of the patient, has a particular ethical interest in sustainability and implementation in all its forms.

What Does The Handbook Cover?

The handbook is split into two sections, the first on principles and policy and the second on design and engineering applications.

In the first instance, we address the principles, some history, and contextual background, along with legislation, regulation, and the “how-to” of setting a sustainability policy. The team opted to help make the path toward a sustainable future operation understood through provision of direction and examples and, through the appendix, by providing useful links. The section ends with some thoughts on future trends with a focus on waste—or rather, a challenge to the need for waste.

The application section of the guide is broken down into discipline-based guidance and focused sections on energy and waste. These include topic areas covering carbon footprinting, green chemistry, facility sustainable design principles, HVAC design concepts, voltage optimization, clean utility optimization, and waste management. Each topic area was chosen to aid both understanding of lines of research and practical integration of sustainable practices into project working.

How Do We Engage?

The expectation is for engagement at all levels of operation, particularly through the inclusion of sustainable development based objectives into the programs of all projects. At pre-project and concept-design levels this may be achieved through the application of sustainability by design as an adjunct to key quality parameters, as a key element of quality by design, and made a part of project and operational metrics from the beginning.

At board level, this may be supported through a reaffirmation of an ethical clinical stance paralleled by a commitment to sustainable objectives and investment through adoption and reportage on sustainability. This can be achieved through the setting a sustainability policy that includes sustainability-based long-term goals when master planning, carrying out life cycle assessment studies of both sites and projects, and implementing individual environmental design assessments to ensure that preset targets are both understood and met.

From procurement of materials to choice of supply chain methodology, the encompassment of sustainable systems neither has to be costly nor time consuming, and the results have shown to be both ethically satisfying and economically beneficial through setting sound achievable long-term sustainability based goals.The ISPE Handbook: Sustainability aims to act as an aid, source and Guidance Document in achieving these objectives.


  • 1Bowen, Rob. “Sustainability and Its Relevance to the Pharmaceutical Industry.” Pharmaceutical Engineering 33, no. 5 (September/October 2013