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Interview with Dr. Petra Wicklandt, Head of Corporate Sustainability, Quality and Trade Compliance, Senior Vice President, Merck Group, Darmstadt

After the Merck Group decided to anchor sustainability as an essential component of its corporate strategy, a lot of things changed within the group. In conversation with HAGER Executive Consulting, explained Dr. Petra Wicklandt, Chief Sustainability Officer at Merck, explains how the implementation of the ambitious sustainability strategy is being driven forward. Find out what is now changing for applicants.

Three years ago you completely revised and relaunched your sustainability strategy. What was the impetus for this?

Dr. Petra Wicklandt: “There was a lack of an overarching goal, a systematic pursuit. Our Corporate Responsibility Department prepares an annual sustainability report in which we have already reported on many topics, but the areas Healthcare, Life Science and Electronics each had different focuses and considerations. On the one hand, the new strategy gives the topic of sustainability much greater weight, and on the other hand, everyone is working on what has priority. We have decided to firmly implement sustainable business practices – which for us means profitable growth. We want to be economically successful and at the same time achieve a positive and measurable value contribution to society through our business activities. We are measured by this responsibility as a global science and technology company.”

“We believe that sustainability is not only the best thing for the world, but also the best thing for a company.”

Dr. Petra Wicklandt, Merck Group

What values ​​and goals is the new sustainability strategy based on? 

“We have defined three pillars or goals, which in turn are backed by seven focus areas. The years 2030 and 2040 are fixed points. We have set ourselves the goal of achieving progress for more than a billion people through sustainable science and technologies by 2030. Our technologies and products are intended to contribute to health and quality of life. The second pillar includes the sustainable design of the entire value chain, including our supply chain. The third pillar is entirely dedicated to reducing the ecological footprint. Among other things, we want to reduce waste and improve the quality of our wastewater. The goal is climate neutrality by 2040. Until then, we will report annually on the current status of implementing our sustainability strategy.”

What is the current implementation of the three goals?

Because we have set different priorities, we are at different stages of implementing our goals. For the electronics sector, the biggest challenge is clearly the reduction of greenhouse gases. Compared to Healthcare and life science, this area has the most CO2 emissions. At Healthcare We focus on the topic of social responsibility, which includes access to medicines for vulnerable patient groups in countries where access is more difficult, to innovative medicines, but also to classic products such as thyroid hormones. At Life Science we deal with more than 300.000 products that are used, for example, in drug research. This is about us looking at each individual product and thinking about how we can make it more sustainable.”

What makes such a comprehensive strategic path possible in the company?

"That's correct. In the sustainable value chain that we pursue, we keep our suppliers and customers in mind. For example, in addition to our greenhouse gases, we also measure the indirect emissions that our suppliers produce when they produce products for us. We have already provided half of our suppliers with a sustainability assessment. Collaboration with suppliers and customers also drives innovation, which we see as an important key to the success of the sustainability strategy. In the electronics sector, we have entered into a collaboration with the US semiconductor manufacturer Intel with the aim of developing more sustainable materials for chip production.”

Merck makes its knowledge and manufacturing expertise available to companies and academic institutions working on the development of cultured meat (clean meat). Is cell-based meat the food of the future?

“As one of the leading suppliers to the biopharmaceutical industry, Merck has a high level of expertise in this young technology. We contribute our knowledge to partnerships, including working with startups that research in the field of clean meat. I firmly believe that in the future we will no longer kill animals to eat meat. But it's not just about animal ethics. With Clean Meat, cattle farming could be eliminated worldwide, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Will we have our own small bioreactors in the kitchen in 2040 for producing clean meat?

“In 2040, clean meat will definitely have a relevant market share. Until then, it is a question of price to what extent it will prevail. Today, cultivated meat is many times more expensive than conventional meat. I don't see any devices for home use because the manufacturing process from real animal cells is highly complex and requires a lot of know-how. This only works in industrial production facilities. The future vision is that clean meat products such as beef, poultry, pork and fish will be produced commercially on a large scale. Then the price will also be cheaper.” 

No sustainability without animal protection. What responsibility does Merck see itself as having here?

“Merck is committed to avoiding animal testing and increasingly introducing alternative testing methods. In doing so, we promote the internationally recognized 3R principle for animal testing. This provides for a reduction in the number of animals required, an improvement (refinement) in the conduct of animal studies and the replacement of animal experiments with other methods. At Merck we have added a fourth R for responsibility because we feel responsible for the laboratory animals.”

“Artificial intelligence is also increasingly helping us replace animal testing.”

Dr. Petra Wicklandt, Merck Group

What exactly does this reduction look like?

“For example, our researchers have developed a new method for batch testing. Some quality tests to release batches of bioengineered medicines have so far been carried out on animals. More animals were used than in the research and development of medicines. We have now established a process that will no longer require the use of laboratory animals for batch testing in the future. Artificial intelligence is also increasingly helping us replace animal testing. All of this will lead to the fact that at some point animals will no longer be used at all.”

How does Merck check its partners and suppliers when it comes to animal welfare?

“Merck is one of the companies that have signed the Marseille Declaration to establish high standards of internal and external animal husbandry and use for scientific purposes by the pharmaceutical industry worldwide. This first joint declaration by the pharmaceutical industry requires compliance with high and uniform standards of animal welfare and laboratory animal science, regardless of where it is carried out. Even when it comes to external animal testing, Merck only accepts the highest standards, and these are sometimes stricter than those of the respective legislators. An example: In the USA, the minimum sizes of animal cages are much smaller than in Germany and Europe. That’s why we don’t want to miss out on the larger cages that meet our standards from our partners and suppliers there.” 

Do patients ask about sustainably produced medicines?

“Where medicines decide between life and death, usually not. In oncology, other priorities are relevant. And there is no information about sustainability on the package inserts. However, we notice that institutions such as the NHS (National Health Service) in Great Britain are definitely interested in sustainability. In particular, the so-called product carbon footprint, i.e. the emissions that occur during the production of a drug, is of interest here.”

How does Merck motivate its employees to act sustainably?

“With our new sustainability strategy we opened doors, which was amazing. It was very well received. We encourage our employees to think sustainably – this motivation is central. We have conveyed our major sustainability goals in training courses and with a lot of effort, and this is a large yet very important task for our more than 64.000 employees worldwide. When it comes to business-specific goals, we encourage employees to think about them themselves. Even our patent department makes an important contribution to sustainability. There they agreed on annual KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that measure how many patents have a sustainability component.”

Are financial incentives for the workforce associated with the sustainability strategy?

“Progress in achieving our three sustainability goals is linked to variable remuneration for management and senior management. There are so-called long-time incentives that run for three years and where the distribution is based on target achievement. The short time incentives include an annual bonus, which also includes sustainability criteria.”

How would you formulate your credo?

“We believe that sustainability is not only the best thing for the world, but also the best thing for a company if you think, plan and want to be successful in the long term. Anyone who hesitates to implement sustainability in view of rising costs will pay dearly if, for example, the price of CO2 rises and taxes become mandatory for more and more areas.”

“We plan to employ 2030 percent female managers by 50.”

Dr. Petra Wicklandt, Merck Group

How does Merck structure its talent management?

“We also pursue very ambitious goals when it comes to diversity, equal opportunities and inclusion. We plan to employ 2030 percent female managers by 50 – currently it is 38 percent. In the area Healthcare We are already very close to our goal today. In the field of electronics, we hope to see more female university graduates in the future. Merck has always been characterized by diversity – we are active in 66 countries and employ around 140 nationalities.

We are aware that we can only continue to be successful if we create an environment that promotes equal opportunities and inclusion. Beyond the gender goal, we have set out to attract people who don't just come from Europe or the USA. We therefore want to employ 2030 percent Asian and Latin American managers by 30. We have customers all over the world and want to reflect this reality in our management structures. In addition, in the future, 30 percent of our managers in the USA should come from ethnic minorities - in the USA, unlike in Germany, identifying yourself with an ethnic group is generally viewed as normal and is therefore also recorded statistically.”

Will the pool of employees also change with the sustainability strategy?

“Basically, we have always placed great value on a good mix of long-term employees with experience in the company and career changers. This is normal and important. With a variety of development and support programs, we provide talented people in the various business areas with the right tools so that they can fully exploit their potential. Those who join us share our passion and vision to improve the lives of millions of people around the world. With the new sustainability strategy, new criteria for applicant interviews were also created in close coordination with our HR department, This means that in the job interview we ask about your personal attitude towards sustainability. Applicants must be a good fit for us, and sustainability is an essential part of the selection process and our actions here.”

Thank you very much for the interview, Ms Dr. Wicklandt!

About Merck:

Merck is a global leader in science and technology Healthcare, Life Science and Electronics. Merck employs over 12.000 people in Germany and more than 64.000 worldwide. High-quality medications and innovative products for the biotech and pharmaceutical industries as well as precise technologies for academic research are developed, produced and marketed. In 2022, Merck generated sales of 66 billion euros in 22,2 countries. The founding family – the 13th generation since 1668 – is still the majority owner of the listed company today.

Dr. Petra Wicklandt heads the Corporate Sustainability, Quality and Trade Compliance department 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 of sustainability, bioethics, digital ethics, politics and global health. She has extensive professional experience in the areas of chemical and pharmaceutical development as well as pharmaceutical production. The doctor of pharmacy has been working for Merck since 1994.

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