Mexico City is just one of the 90 metropolises around the world that have joined the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. Photo by: Johnson & Johnson

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 1 in 4 of total deaths worldwide are caused by environmental risk factors. Air, water, and soil pollution; improper waste management; and ecosystem degradation all negatively impact human health.

There is scope for awareness raising around these significant threats to human health and, more importantly, a need to step up hazard mitigation and reduction measures so that fewer lives are lost.

“You really can’t have healthy people without a healthy planet. We believe that human health and the environment are inextricably linked,” said Sonali Sharma, senior director, sustainability and engagement at Johnson & Johnson, a multinational health care company.

“You can’t have healthy people without a healthy planet and we will need to work together across all sectors to improve planetary health.”

— Sonali Sharma, senior director of sustainability and engagement, Johnson & Johnson

After 17 years of working in both the private and nonprofit sectors, Sharma believes that one way to achieve real impact is to reframe the issue, encouraging stakeholders to join forces to improve planetary health.

“Businesses bring many strengths to the table but addressing these issues requires the collaboration of companies, governments, academia, nonprofit organizations, and international development organizations to achieve systemic change at scale,” she said.

Sitting down with Devex, Sharma sets out the key actions needed to address environmental health and explains why policy advocacy, public-private partnerships, and general public engagement are key.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Looking at global health today, do you think enough emphasis is being placed on how climate or environmental factors can impact an individual’s health?

Academia, nonprofit organizations, and multilateral organizations have been talking about this connection for a while. We need to reframe the climate conversation to something that people understand. J&J is focusing on at this nexus is air pollution, which was the genesis of our work with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. Pollution is an imminent challenge and you can see it with your own eyes.

C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group

This network of more than 90 of the world's largest cities is working together to tackle climate change and make their cities more resilient. J&J’s partnership with C40 supports research and education to help connect the dots between climate action, improved air quality, and measurably better health benefits. This partnership enabled J&J’s five-year Sustainable Development Goal target for environmental health, which is 100 million citizens living across 30 cities benefiting from climate and air quality actions that have the potential to positively impact public health.

I was born in Africa and raised in Asia, and you can’t deny the effects of air pollution when you’re in some of those parts of the world. I think if you talk about climate in a more relevant way, we'll have members of the general population making better-informed choices on actions they can take individually to reduce their carbon footprint. We’ve seen campaigns, like Breathe Life from WHO where you can learn about air quality in your own city, but some of these campaigns don't reach a broad audience — more awareness is critical.

At the end of the day, we need everyone to collaborate and see the big picture. In launching the Sustainable Development Goals, the United Nations is linking specific goals and considering how to approach them holistically. SDG 3 addresses improving health and well-being. When you dig down, you’ll see the targets and indicators for this goal also include the environment and how it can impact public health outcomes.

Yet policymaking and programming are often still siloed. You have environmental health policies, you have public health policies, and while strides have already been made, we can all do a better job of connecting the dots between some of these issues in a more systematic way.

How key are partnerships in helping to unlock change at the rate and scale needed to make better environmental health a reality for more people in more places?

J&J believes that multistakeholder engagement and partnerships are key to improving planetary health. We have a goal to engage our suppliers in our sustainability efforts as well, and we’re proud to share that at the end of last year, we enrolled approximately 51 percent of suppliers in our sustainable procurement program. 

We also believe it is important for policymakers to address climate change in a meaningful way to further facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy. Last year, we became a founding member of the Climate Leadership Council, a coalition of business and environmental leaders working together in support of a bipartisan climate policy. We also believe that we need collaboration across supply chains, industries, and civil society to address climate change.  This is why we recently joined the We Are Still In initiative, a growing coalition of bipartisan organizations committed to taking actions in support of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Finding partners, change agents, and fellow visionaries beyond our own operations will help us unlock change at the rate and scale needed to make better health a reality for more people, in more places.

How important are actions at the intersection between environmental action and human health?

At J&J, we’re working to raise awareness of the connection between environmental and human health. We couldn’t work on this unless we had a good understanding of our own impact. We have set public environmental performance goals including goals to reduce our carbon footprint for nearly 30 years.  

We look at optimizing our own operations through improvements in water and energy use to do just that. In our products, we aim to reduce life-cycle impact of our products by deploying sustainable design and packaging. Doubling the impact, we partner to extend our product value chain by supporting our suppliers to implement environmental improvements in their own businesses. Importantly, we're committed to making a difference beyond our own supply chain.

Lastly, we look to people. J&J has long supported health care professionals on the frontlines of public health. We believe this community of health care professionals are trusted advisers and community members who can not only educate their patients on environmental-related health impacts, but also advocate for better public policy.

J&J is a founding partner of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health, a group bringing together top medical associations representing more than 500,000 clinicians to help educate Americans about the health effects of climate change and promote life-saving actions, including the decreased use of fossil fuels.  

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