GAME CHANGER SUSTAINABILITY AND GREEN CHEMISTRY AT MERCK
After Merck Group decided to embed sustainability as an essential component of its corporate strategy, many changes have occurred within the company. In an interview with Dr. Markus Neumann of HAGER Life Sciences Practice, Dr. Petra Wicklandt, Chief Sustainability Officer at Merck, explains how the implementation of their ambitious sustainability strategy is progressing. Find out what changes this brings for applicants as well.
Three years ago, you completely revamped and restructured your sustainability strategy. What prompted this change? Dr. Petra Wicklandt: “We lacked an overarching goal, systematic tracking. Our Corporate Responsibility Department published an annual sustainability report, covering many topics, but the Healthcare, Life Science, and Electronics segments each had different focuses and considerations. The new strategy gives sustainability much higher importance and aligns everyone with what is a priority. We aim to firmly establish sustainable business practices, which, for us, are synonymous with profitable growth. We want to be economically successful and, through our business activities, simultaneously create a positive and measurable societal value. This is the responsibility we carry as a global science and technology company.”
“We believe that sustainability is not only the best for the world but also the best for a company.” – Dr. Petra Wicklandt, Merck Group
What are the values and objectives that underpin the new sustainability strategy?
“We have defined three pillars or objectives, each with seven focus areas. The years 2030 and 2040 are fixed reference points. We aim to achieve progress for more than one billion people by 2030 through sustainable science and technologies. Our technologies and products are intended to contribute to health and quality of life. The second pillar involves the sustainable design of the entire value chain, including our supply chain. The third pillar is dedicated to reducing the ecological footprint. We aim to reduce waste and improve the quality of our wastewater, among other things. Our goal is carbon neutrality by 2040. We report annually on the current status of the implementation of our sustainability strategy.”
How is the implementation of these three goals progressing?
“Because we have set different priorities, we are at different stages in the implementation of our goals. For Electronics, the most significant challenge is undoubtedly the reduction of greenhouse gases. This sector has the highest CO2 emissions compared to Healthcare and Life Science. In Healthcare, we focus on Social Responsibility, which includes improving access to medicines for vulnerable patient groups in countries where access is more challenging, to innovative drugs, but also to traditional products such as thyroid hormones. In Life Science, we deal with over 300,000 products used in pharmaceutical research. Here, we are examining each product individually to consider how we can make it more sustainable.”
What makes such a comprehensive strategic path feasible within the company?
“It is crucial that the management promotes sustainability and is convinced that sustainability is one of the top priorities. Only then can it work, and only then can the topic be effectively integrated into all business processes. All employees need to be trained and understand how to embed sustainability in their respective areas. A single team cannot drive such a complex topic alone. To embed sustainability in the departments, you ideally need dual expertise: sustainability and business-specific expertise in R&D, production, or procurement. We strive to have employees in all areas who prioritize sustainability.”
Sustainability extends beyond the Merck campus.
“That’s right. In the sustainable value chain we pursue, we keep an eye on our suppliers and customers. For example, we measure not only our greenhouse gas emissions but also the indirect emissions produced by our suppliers when they manufacture products for us. We have already provided Sustainability Assessments for half of our suppliers. Working with suppliers and customers also advances innovation, which we consider a crucial key to the success of our sustainability strategy. In the Electronics sector, for instance, we have partnered with the US semiconductor manufacturer Intel with the goal of developing more sustainable materials for chip production.”
Merck is making its expertise and manufacturing competence available to companies and academic institutions working on the development of cultured meat. Is cell-based meat the food of the future?
“As one of the leading suppliers to the biopharmaceutical industry, Merck has extensive expertise in this emerging technology. We contribute our knowledge through partnerships, including collaboration with startups conducting research on Clean Meat. I firmly believe that, in the future, we will no longer need to kill animals to eat meat. But it’s not just about animal ethics. Clean Meat could eliminate cattle farming worldwide, reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”
By 2040, will we have our own small bioreactors in the kitchen for the production of Clean Meat? “In 2040, Clean Meat will certainly have a relevant market share. The price will determine the extent to which it prevails. Today, cultured meat is still significantly more expensive than conventional meat. I don’t see devices for home use, as the production process from real animal cells is highly complex and requires a lot of expertise. It can only work in industrial production facilities. The vision for the future is that commercially produced Clean Meat products such as beef, poultry, pork, and even fish will be cheaper.”
Is there a responsibility for animal protection within Merck?
“Merck strives to avoid animal testing and promote alternative test methods. We support the internationally recognized 3R principle for animal testing. This involves reducing the number of animals required, refining the conduct of animal studies, and replacing animal experiments with other methods. At Merck, we have added a fourth R, which stands for Responsibility, as we feel responsible for the test animals.”
“Artificial intelligence is increasingly helping us replace animal testing.” – Dr. Petra Wicklandt, Merck Group
How does this reduction work in practice?
“Our researchers have, for example, developed a new method for batch tests. Some quality tests to release batches of biotechnologically manufactured drugs have traditionally been performed using animals. This involved using more animals than in pharmaceutical research and development. We have now established a process that will no longer require lab animals for batch tests in the future. Artificial intelligence is also increasingly helping us replace animal testing. All this will eventually lead to a time when no animals are used at all.”
How does Merck assess its partners and suppliers in terms of animal protection?
“Merck is one of the companies that has signed the Marseille Declaration on the worldwide adoption of high standards in the internal and external keeping and use of animals for scientific purposes by the pharmaceutical industry. This first joint declaration by the pharmaceutical industry requires adherence to high and uniform standards concerning animal protection and laboratory animal science, regardless of where it is performed. Merck only accepts the highest standards for external animal testing, which are sometimes stricter than those of the respective legislator. For example, in the United States, the minimum cage sizes are much smaller than in Germany and Europe. We do not want to forego the larger cages that meet our standards for our partners and suppliers there.”
Do patients inquire about sustainably produced medicines?
“In areas where medicines decide between life and death, they generally do not. Other priorities are relevant in oncology. Sustainability information is not found on package inserts. However, we find that institutions such as the NHS (National Health Service) in the UK are indeed interested in sustainability. Product carbon footprint, which is the emissions generated during the production of a drug, is of interest.”
How does Merck motivate its employees to act sustainably?
“With our new sustainability strategy, we found open doors, which was amazing. It was well received. We encourage our employees to think sustainably – this motivation is key. We have conveyed our major sustainability goals through training and considerable effort. This is a big but essential task with our more than 64,000 employees worldwide. For business-specific goals, we encourage employees to consider their own ideas. Even our patent department makes a significant contribution to sustainability. There, we have agreed on annual KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that measure how many patents have a sustainability component.”
Are there financial incentives associated with the sustainability strategy for the workforce?
“The progress in achieving our three sustainability goals is linked to variable compensation for top management and upper management. There are Long Time Incentives that run for three years and where the payout is based on goal achievement. Short Time Incentives include an annual bonus, with sustainability criteria also included.”
How would you formulate your credo?
“We believe that sustainability is not only the best for the world but also the best for a company when thinking, planning, and striving for long-term success. Those who hesitate in implementing sustainability due to rising costs will pay a high price when, for example, carbon prices are expected to increase, and levies become mandatory for more and more areas.”
“By 2030, we plan to employ 50 percent female executives.” – Dr. Petra Wicklandt, Merck Group
How does Merck shape its talent management?
“In the areas of diversity, equal opportunities, and inclusion, we also pursue very ambitious goals. By 2030, we plan to employ 50 percent female executives – currently, it’s 38 percent. In Healthcare, we are quite close to the goal already. In Electronics, we hope to see more female university graduates in the future. Merck has always been shaped by diversity – we operate in 66 countries and employ around 140 nationalities. We understand that we can only continue to be successful if we create an environment that promotes equal opportunities and inclusion. Beyond the gender target, we aim to attract people who come not only from Europe or the USA. By 2030, we want to employ 30 percent Asian and Latin American executives. We have customers all over the world and want to reflect this reality in our leadership structures. In addition, we intend that our leaders in the USA will comprise 30 percent ethnic minorities – self-identifying as part of an ethnic group is generally seen as normal and is statistically recorded in the United States.”
Is the sustainability strategy changing the pool of employees?
“In principle, we have always placed a high value on a good mix of long-term employees with experience in the company and newcomers from other industries. This is normal and important. With a variety of development and support programs, we provide talents in the various business areas with the tools they need to fully realize their potential. Those who come to us share our passion and vision to improve the lives of millions of people worldwide. With the new sustainability strategy, we have also established new criteria for applicant interviews in close coordination with our HR department. This means that sustainability is a significant part of the selection process and our actions.”
Thank you for the conversation, Dr. Wicklandt!
About Merck: Merck is a leading global science and technology company in the fields of Healthcare, Life Science, and Electronics. In Germany, Merck employs over 12,000 employees, and worldwide, more than 64,000. The company develops, produces, and markets high-quality medicines and innovative products for the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, as well as precise technologies for academic research. In 2022, Merck generated revenue of 22.2 billion euros in 66 countries. The founding family – in the 13th generation since 1668 – is the majority owner of the publicly traded group. Dr. Petra Wicklandt heads the Corporate Sustainability, Quality, and Trade Compliance division of the Merck Group. She is responsible for sustainability and regulatory compliance at the corporate level. Previously, she was head of Corporate Affairs at the company, with areas including sustainability, bioethics, digital ethics, policy, and global health. She has extensive professional experience in chemical and pharmaceutical development and pharmaceutical production. The PharmD has been with Merck since 1994.