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The drive to embed 'planetary health' impacts within corporate sustainability strategy

Although more companies are making the connection, few are addressing this collision strategically.

In 2015, the Rockefeller Foundation-Lancet Commission coined the term "planetary health" to focus on interactions between environmental and human health. Since then, groups such as the Lancet, The Planetary Health Alliance and the U.N. Health and Environmental Linkages Initiative have given growing attention to the influence of environmental conditions on human health.

Most recently, the United Nations Environment Program published its sixth Global Environment Outlook focused on the theme of "Healthy Planet, Healthy People." The report states: "Poor environmental conditions which can be changed ('modifiable conditions') cause approximately 25 percent of global disease and mortality."

Given that fossil fuel companies are the largest contributors to climate change and that chemical production, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, textiles, smelting, agriculture and refineries are major contributors to air and water pollution, addressing the environmental and ecological determinants of health requires leadership across many corporate sectors.

But as Mary Engvall, senior director of corporate responsibility at global health services company Cigna, explains: "The connection between the health of the planet, the quality of the air and the cleanliness of our drinking water have very direct impacts on health — and yet often times people think of them as somewhat disparate."

In other words, the nexus between changing environmental conditions and health outcomes is not well understood by many businesses.

To break down this barrier, the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) "Health is Everyone’s Business" action platform, which facilitates collaboration between companies, has made the case for integrating health and environmental solutions one of its priorities. The "Health is Everyone’s Business" platform is part of a group of Global Compact action platforms that bring together companies, stakeholder groups and leading experts to address the Sustainable Development Goals.

The connection between the health of the planet, the quality of the air and the cleanliness of our drinking water have very direct impacts on health.
As part of this effort, our team at Duke University has explored how companies can make the connection between environmental and health impacts throughout their respective value chains. We conducted research on 50 companies in the food, agriculture and textile sectors to determine whether they consciously address the health risks associated with their environmental impacts. 

How many are making the connection? We found that 58 percent of the companies we researched communicate the connection between some of their environmental impacts and human health. Furthermore, 46 percent of the companies have products, company policies or social initiatives that address linked environmental and health issues.

The most common connections that companies in the food, agriculture and textile sectors make between the environment and health include chemical exposure on employee health, water quality impacts on community sanitation and hygiene, and the impact of food waste on hunger.

We found that although some companies make connections between environmental impacts and associated health outcomes, most companies are not taking a strategic approach to the health and environment nexus. This lack of strategic focus on planetary health may explain why most companies neglect or overlook important connections between environment and health.

But what exactly does it mean for a company to integrate health and environmental strategies, and what benefit does thinking this way provide?

Integrating health and environmental strategies within a company implies having corporate goals, policies, metrics, initiatives and products that strive to improve human health by reducing associated environmental impacts.

For example, Nestlé’s social framework "Creating Shared Value" places health, community stewardship and environmental action at the core of its business model. Nestlé maps its material issues associated with health, the community and the environment across the SDGs to determine the overlap between environmental impacts and health outcomes.

This corporate framework is integrated through the company via policies such as "The Nestle Corporate Business Principles" and in supply chain improvement initiatives targeting farming practices that pollute water and endanger local sanitation and hygiene. Nestlé recognizes the benefits of assessing human and environmental health implications across its entire supply chain.

The companies and industry groups we interviewed suggested that there are distinct advantages of integrating health and environmental strategies.

For one, connecting environmental improvements to health outcomes of employees and communities in the value chain helps make a stronger case for allocating company resources to environmental efforts. Interviewees asserted that integrating health and environmental strategies saves time and resources and prevents redundancies in social initiatives. Some companies stated that integrating health and environmental improvements may amplify the attractiveness of their products to sustainability-minded consumers.

Some companies we interviewed also voiced concerns about integrating health and environmental strategies. They are concerned that such integration may create more complexity regarding internal alignment and team responsibilities. Companies also suggested that health and environmental initiatives with a broader scope would increase costs.

Some companies are concerned that such integration may create more complexity regarding internal alignment and team responsibilities.
Our goal is for these findings to broaden the conversation about bringing planetary health into practice within the corporate sector. Our work shows the importance of connecting health and the environment, and describes the current state of corporate efforts to incorporate the environmental determinants of health into their business strategies.

To further engage corporations in this discussion, Duke University is working with the UNGC "Health is Everyone’s Business" action platform to understand the opportunities and challenges associated with integrating health and environment in company strategies.

With insight from leading UNGC members such as AstraZeneca, Cigna, Essity, Merck, Nestlé, Rambøll and Rockwool, our team is developing a leadership brief with case studies and an assessment tool to help companies understand the benefits of integrating health and environmental goals. This tool will support companies as they assess how they can improve impacts at the nexus of health and environment within their value chains. In order to achieve more meaningful progress on the SDGs, contributing companies agree that we need effective corporate leadership on planetary health.

This article was co-authored by Deborah Gallagher, an associate professor with the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, and Samantha Burch, a master's candidate at Duke.

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