Global Impact

The planet’s health is everyone’s health

Una Kent, WBA’s vice president of CSR, reflects on the devastating impacts of climate change and WBA’s commitment to sustainability.

By Hannah Robinson and Rachel Heath
Una Kent
Una Kent

2021 is a pivotal moment in the fight against climate change. 

This month, the UK hosted what many believe was the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control. From Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, the 26th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP26, brought together world leaders and drove a global response to climate change. 

For Una Kent, WBA’s vice president of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), this couldn’t be more important. Hosted by her home-city of Glasgow, Scotland, COP26 gave Kent the time to reflect on her personal CSR journey, the devasting impacts of climate change, and WBA’s commitment to protecting the health of our planet and communities around the world.

Purpose on display

Kent has lived and breathed the world of CSR for almost a quarter of a century. Having recently stepped into a new role at WBA during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kent believes purpose is key to making a difference and bringing the company's CSR agenda to life.

“My purpose is about helping everyone see everything we're doing through fresh eyes,” she says. “It’s about taking our company’s amazing legacy, our partnerships and the innovation we've brought to this space and realizing its power. I ask myself, ‘How can I get the right awareness, understanding and recognition for the phenomenal steps our business is taking in its environmental, social and governance (ESG) marathon?’ Our team members and stakeholders should feel the impact we’re having.” 

In support of COP26, Boots UK partnered with the British Beauty Council and the Sustainable Beauty Coalition to build a window display at its St. Enoch Center store in Glasgow highlighting its “Recycle at Boots” program—even featuring a chair made entirely from products recycled in Boots stores. In partnership with No7, the program encourages customers to bring back their hard-to-recycle health, beauty and wellness products in more than 700 Boots stores across the UK.

“When you think about the idea of empowering and creating ambassadors, something as simple as putting donation points in our stores mobilizes customers and creates one of the most accessible schemes of its kind in the UK,” Kent says. “It’s a circular economy solution, and it’s setting the industry standard.”

Life cannot exist on a dead planet

Although climate change is the greatest global health threat facing the world in the 21st century, it’s also the greatest opportunity to redefine the social and environmental determinants of health, according to The Lancet

Reflecting on her recent panel discussions with sustainability experts Innovation Forum, a purpose-driven business based in London, and more recently at COP26 with GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Reckitt, the irrefutable connection between climate change and human health is something Kent, and WBA’s pharmacy team members, understand well. 

“Our pharmacy teams see the impacts of climate change every single day on people's health,” she says. “Perhaps the biggest one we see on a daily basis is the impact of air pollution and what this means for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma.”


Otrivin Air Bubble installation at COP26, Glasgow, UK

During COP26, GSK brand Otrivin revealed an interactive, air-purifying installation to help raise awareness of the impact of air pollution. The Air Bubble is made of 99% air, water and living algae cultures, wrapped into a thin, transparent, 100% recyclable membrane. Through the action of bouncing in the Air Bubble, the microalgae capture carbon dioxide before releasing fresh, clean oxygen into the space.


Agents for change 

As a global pharmacy, healthcare and retail company, WBA has a responsibility to help combat climate change. The company recently announced a global, enterprise-wide target to reduce absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030. But this isn’t the only way it’s rising to the challenge.

“We’ve been looking at the intersection between climate change and human health for some time now,” says Kent. “We’ve been working with organizations such as Forum for the Future, GSK, Bupa and the United Nations to hold a series of roundtables where we bring together leaders to analyze how businesses can build a systematic and resilient response to climate change. As a result, we  published a report at Climate Week 2021, which gives businesses a framework to think about how they might face into the issue of climate change and human health.”

Championed by WBA’s CSR Committee—chaired by Ornella Barra, Chief Operating Officer, International; Richard Ellis, Vice President, CSR; Seb James, Senior Vice President and Managing Director, Boots UK; John Standley, Executive Vice President, WBA and President, Walgreens; and Annie Murphy, Senior Vice President, Global Chief Commercial Brands Officer and International Retail—and in collaboration with external organizations, WBA’s team members have also been living its purpose through its healthcare-centered CSR strategy.

Even when trying to tackle climate change, Kent has ensured our focus remains firmly fixed on health equity.

“When you think about our purpose, it’s about making health more personal, more accessible and eliminating inequities,” Kent says. “It’s absolutely the poorest in society who will feel the biggest impact from health-related issues brought about by climate change. As a company who believes in health equity, we have to be part of the solution.”

Infographic of WBA's work to reverse climate change impacts


Focusing on the future

The world of CSR is experiencing a seismic shift. An entire generation of young people, including Kent’s 9-year-old niece, Cara, who is “fiercely giddy” for conserving the Indigo dolphins in the Moray Firth, have been inspired by climate change activist Greta Thunberg. 

“It’s an incredibly exciting moment to be in this space,” says Kent. “CSR has classically been seen as something separate, something in addition to our day-to-day business. But now, CSR is relevant to everyone and everything, everywhere. As regulation changes from voluntary to mandatory, we’re all accountable for environmentally and socially sustainable action.”

Committed to being part of the solution, Kent shares her hopes for the future of the planet.

“In an ideal world, the earth has stopped warming,” she says. “We've reversed the damage we've done, and we’re moving toward a happier, long-term future where we can pass on a healthy planet to our children. It’s ambitious, but it’s something I wholeheartedly believe in.

“No one individual or company has the answer, but by bringing together academia, businesses, NGOs, governments and policy makers, there’s a genuine opportunity," she continues. “Nothing demonstrated the human power of problem solving better than the COVID-19 pandemic. If we galvanize this same reaction and come together with intention, we can make it happen.”

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