Health and Climate Change: Integrated ESG Strategies and Communications Help Address Complex Challenges
August 17, 2021
Last week, the U.N. climate panel released its sixth and most comprehensive assessment of climate change to-date. With its strongest assertion that immediate action is required to avoid catastrophic impacts of human-caused climate change, it is what U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres calls the a “code red for humanity.”
Health is a critical part of this conversation. Climate change impacts Social Determinants of Health such as clean air and water and access to food and secure housing, which influence health outcomes. More frequent and severe climate-driven storms, floods, wildfires, and temperature swings also lead to increased risk of disease and reduce access to medicines in emergency situations. Compounding these challenges, low-income and communities of color already experience higher rates of many health conditions including heart disease, lung disease and bacterial infections and have higher exposure to local environmental hazards, making them more vulnerable to climate-related environmental health effects.
As the climate crisis, COVID-19 pandemic and social justice movements have converged in the last year, these connections are becoming clearer and more critical to address holistically. Fortunately, we have the tools we need to both mitigate the impacts of climate change and improve equitable health outcomes by removing the self-imposed barriers among environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.
Integrated problems need integrated solutions. So, whether a company is deciding how best to address Social Determinants of Health through an ESG strategy, expanding diversity in clinical trials, or choosing non-profit partners for climate-emergency medicine delivery, there are several foundational principles that can guide integrated strategies and communication solutions that help improve equity and health outcomes.
Breaking Down ESG Silos for Improved Health Outcomes
Start with materiality and a strategy: There is more pressure than ever for companies to not only act responsibly, but also leverage their business to catalyze positive change. However, no one company can do everything. A materiality assessment helps companies prioritize and focus their strategies, policies and actions on the most relevant issues to the business and their stakeholders. The assessment also helps identify where E, S and G issues are interconnected, providing clarify on the strategies needed to break down siloes and how best to communicate them. Companies determining where they can have greatest impact on reducing carbon emissions, how to integrate access challenges into non-profit partnerships, their approach to clinical trial diversity or how best to improve environmental quality where patients or employees live and work, for example, can benefit from a materiality assessment to shape their approach, prioritize the strategic roadmap, and help engage with the right stakeholders.
Integrate teams: To successfully identify, integrate and communicate the connections between ESG issues, teams need to talk to each other and align on common goals. Human Resources, Investor Relations, Environmental Health and Safety, Governance, Political Affairs, Patient Advocacy and Communications teams should meet regularly to help address stakeholder questions and proactively formulate strategies that manage risks and seize ESG opportunities. For example, it can be beneficial for patient engagement teams to provide updates on how transportation or financial barriers impact how frequently patients get to treatments, which in turn, guides strategic alliances that help reduce these barriers. Or, if investors are asking about climate change impacts the medicine supply chain, coordination with EHS and IR teams can proactively answer these questions. This level of coordination, whether through existing practices or creating an ESG council, can help streamline your operations and improve the consistency and transparency of your activities and messages.
Act now and look beyond quarterly earnings: We know the time to act is now. Now is the time to rethink policies and procedures that reflect the intersection of health and climate and improve access to care — whether it’s through remote work policies, 401K investment choices, corporate giving criteria, expanded health benefits or material sourcing management. And while business still experiences the pressures of quarterly earnings, investors increasingly want to understand medium and longer-term plans and commitments that help them evaluate future global risks such as extreme weather or pandemics that affect employees, supply chains, patients or consumers. These complicated issues can take time to adjust. Be clear in your timelines and your approach.
Build a clear narrative: Illuminate how “E” “S” and “G” and health outcomes are interconnected in the context of your business or industry. To borrow a phrase from social justice movements, we are talking about intersectionality. With consistency and clarity, investors, employees, patients, partners, regulators, and communities can better understand how you are managing these issues and where your risks and opportunities truly lie to meet your objectives and improve reputation. With so many terms for sustainability and social impact, it’s critical that you define your own narrative and maintain consistency. Aligning ESG reporting to frameworks such as SASB and TCFD also provides clarity about the rationale for these actions and comparable, decision-useful data year over year.
Tailor engagement: Frequent communication with stakeholder groups – whether investors, patients community partners and employees – is critical. But these groups will also need to hear your messages in different ways depending on their needs and expectations. While it’s vital that companies refine how E, S and G issues and topics intersect, there is still the need to tailor your communications and engagement strategies according to these different audiences.