Why sea freight is the future for the pharma industry

Neeshe Williams, Head of ESG & General Counsel at Pharmanovia, explores sustainability & the potential of sea freight in supporting the pharma sector

Every business, in every sector is exploring options to bring emissions down and embed sustainable practices into their daily operations. The pharmaceutical industry is no different, and in fact, has more reason than most to prioritise this. It is estimated that there are about 52mn tonnes of CO2 emissions directly generated by the pharma sector per year – that’s more than the automobile industry!

That figure doesn’t even take into account indirect – or Scope 3 – emissions generated in the value chain, for example by purchased pharmaceuticals or upstream transportation. This is particularly pertinent because together, these emissions count for much of the carbon footprint for non-manufacturing pharmaceutical companies.

Neeshe Williams, Head of ESG & General Counsel at Pharmanovia

Neeshe Williams, Head of ESG & General Counsel at Pharmanovia

Sustainability is the neglected area of Pharma

A recent survey from a leading intelligence organisation within the healthcare sector found that just 16 out of 500 pharmaceutical companies quizzed said that they measured their Scope 3 emissions – as one of our biggest generators of emissions.

If the sector is to create meaningful change, then we must look beyond the direct impact of our own practices and hold third parties to the same high standards we set ourselves. By rigorously measuring and managing Scope 3 emissions, we can work together with partners to influence a transition to more sustainable practices sector wide.   

At Pharmanovia, we set out to measure our Scope 3 emissions in 2021, putting an action plan in place to manage indirect CO2 emissions. When we laid out our inaugural sustainability report back in 2022, we announced we would pilot a transition from air to sea freight to cut upstream transport emissions, focussing on our Spain-to-Australia freight route.

The results are in. By diverting shipments from air to sea, we successfully avoided an estimated 470,000kg in potential CO2 emissions in 2022 – equating to an 18% reduction in our Scope 3 transport emissions. 

We also found there were some unintended benefits as a result of this pilot. In addition to CO2 reduction, sea freight, particularly those longer journeys, has the potential to be a powerful weapon in the war against waste. Air freight is responsible for 80% of all reported temperature excursions in the pharma industry, if a temperature excursion happens, medicines need to be destroyed. During our pilot, no sea shipments experienced temperature excursions meaning less medicines had to be destroyed which could see a significant reduction in wasted medicines over the longer term. 

Another benefit of the pilot was the re-evaluation of the shelf-life of products. Following testing, we were able to successfully increase the shelf-life of some products, again resulting in waste reduction and mitigating loss of shelf life in the transition from air to sea freight. 

This pilot programme demonstrates that such innovation can deliver benefits in carbon, waste and cost reduction, all whilst continuing to serve patients around the world. Following its success, we have now increased targets to divert 40% of our air shipments to sea in 2023 and 75% by the end of 2028.

Sustainable healthcare is possible with sea freight 

The health of the planet and that of its citizens are intrinsically linked. If the purpose of the pharmaceutical industry is to improve the health and wellbeing of people, then taking action to protect the planet must form a large part of that mission. 

But of course, achieving net zero cannot be shouldered by one person in a business, and in a similar vein, it cannot be achieved by one business in a sector. It requires everyone pulling in the same direction to achieve a sustainable future. Transitioning to sea freight, we believe, is one piece of that puzzle. We hope that the results of our pilot will inspire a sea change in how the sector delivers pharmaceutical products to consumers. 


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