Solid Foundation

    Sarah Bostwick (Photo: PMI)

    Sarah Bostwick discusses the significance of materiality assessments in PMI’s long-term strategy.

    By Stefanie Rossel

    In the world of investment, the sustainability of businesses was long considered a negligible financial risk. According to the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation, a European piece of legislation introduced to improve transparency in the market for sustainable investment, a sustainability risk is an environmental, social or governance (ESG) event or condition that, if it occurs, could cause an actual or potential material negative impact on the value of investment.

    As the effects of climate change became more noticeable, however, sustainability became an increasingly important consideration for companies, requiring them to adjust their risk management strategies. Today, a company’s ability to manage sustainability issues is thought to be related directly to its long-term growth. Institutional investors, private equity firms and hedge funds now tend to prefer companies complying with ESG principles.

    The Covid-19 pandemic has added new challenges for businesses, showing them that factors such as workplace culture or executives’ behavior are having a growing influence on corporate performance and company reputation and hence need to be included in their risk management plans.

    In order to develop a sustainability strategy, companies use materiality and stakeholders’ assessments. Materiality, a concept that defines why and how certain issues are important for a company or a business sector, is considered one of the most crucial elements to determine business risks and impacts in this process. A sustainability materiality assessment (SMA) is the backbone of sustainability reporting.

    Philip Morris International is working to deliver a smoke-free future and evolving its portfolio to include products outside of the tobacco and nicotine sectors. In February 2021, PMI announced its ambition to expand into wellness and healthcare areas and deliver innovative products and solutions that aim to address unmet consumer and patient needs. 

    PMI conducted its first SMA in 2016 and updated the assessment in 2018, 2019 and 2021, according to Sarah Bostwick, head of sustainability stakeholder engagement at PMI. “Sustainability is at the core of PMI’s business strategy and is an opportunity for innovation, growth and the long-term value creation of the company,” she says. “Our sustainability materiality assessment forms the foundation of PMI’s sustainability strategy. It helps us to ensure that our efforts remain focused on those areas where we can have the greatest impact and that we continue to deliver relevant reporting to our stakeholders. To keep pace with our business transformation toward a smoke-free future and constantly evolving stakeholder priorities, it’s necessary to regularly update our sustainability materiality assessment.”

    The periodic SMAs, adds Bostwick, allow PMI to monitor and adapt its business and long-term strategy to social, environmental, economic, political and technological changes. For the 2021 assessment, PMI partnered with BSD Consulting.

    Double Sustainability Materiality Approach

    PMI’s SMA follows a five-step process: Identifying ESG topics, gathering stakeholder perspectives, assessing outward impacts, assessing inward impacts and identifying the company’s most material topics. The assessment has embedded the concept of double materiality. In recent years, various standard setters and regulatory bodies have begun to refine the concept of sustainability materiality, with the European Union Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive proposal and the International Sustainability Standards Board recently set up by the International Financial Reporting Standards Foundation Trustees both distinguishing between “single materiality” and “double materiality.”

    The principle of double materiality acknowledges that businesses should assess both the risk and opportunities linked to ESG topics that can influence enterprise value creation (“inward impacts”) and the ESG impacts that a company can have on the planet and society (“outward impacts”). Furthermore, the concept of “dynamic materiality” recognizes that the financial materiality of an ESG impact can evolve over time.

    In their foreword to PMI’s Sustainability Materiality Report 2021, BSD Consulting advisors explain that there are several advantages to this approach: “PMI gained deep insights that go far beyond generic sectoral or geographical approaches to match the company’s business model and dynamic transformation path. By considering emerging topics and aligning the process with internal risk management, PMI paved the way for pragmatic interim reviews and adjustments. In this way, the chosen approach allows the company to identify topics with medium-term to long-term strategic relevance for PMI and its business model as well as to dynamically adapt them to external or internal developments.”

    Stakeholders play a key role in the assessment process. For its 2021 SMA, PMI expanded the group of stakeholders to participate, recognizing that there is value in integrating different perspectives into its analysis to deepen its understanding. In addition to soliciting input from employees, regulators, public health community, suppliers and civil society, PMI built on consumer understanding acquired over time (e.g., through studies on consumer perception of sustainability issues associated with the industry). The aim was to achieve a fair representation of its key stakeholders across the geographies it operates. Inputs were collected through an online survey in which around 150 internal and external stakeholders took part and in-depth qualitative interviews.

    The company welcomes critical voices. “Constructive dialogue is essential to moving society forward,” Bostwick states. “To achieve the collective action required to solve the world’s most pressing challenges, we must include all voices, bringing together people with differing opinions, scrutinizing facts and finding common ground upon which to build. We will always have critics, and we remain committed to engaging with them honestly and transparently, pointing out the actions we are taking to address their concerns and welcoming feedback on how we can do better. In line with the principle of double materiality, the assessment consists of a five-pronged approach that evaluates both outward and inward impacts and accounts for the expectations of the company’s stakeholders.”

    Emerging Topics Identified

    While the company’s 2021 list of topics accounted for those assessed during its 2019 sustainability materiality analysis, it underwent significant changes that impact the comparability of results, says Bostwick. “Most topics were renamed as we sought to define them in a neutral way, accounting for both their potential positive and negative impacts. We also introduced new topics, such as ‘innovation in wellness and healthcare’ or ‘laws and regulations,’ to reflect changes in our business and value proposition and the rapid evolution of the regulatory landscape; bundled topics that were deeply connected, for instance, consolidating under ‘economic contribution’ aspects related to fiscal practices or illicit tobacco trade prevention; and split some topics that merited a more granular assessment, for example, decoupling ‘health and safety at work’ and ‘employee well-being.’ Lastly, reflecting the maturity of sustainability at PMI, we did not consider ‘human rights’ as a standalone topic but rather as an ever-present topic pervasive across our company and all ESG issues.”

    Furthermore, the company identified three topics that were not included in the list of most material sustainability topics but that it expected to gain momentum in the future: human capital development, biodiversity and water. Their selection, Bostwick points out, relied on the identification of major trends in the sustainability arena, coupled with insights gathered throughout the various steps of the materiality process.

    According to Bostwick, the SMAs’ findings have directly impacted PMI’s operations. In 2021, the company acquired Vectura Group, an inhaled drug development solutions specialist; Fertin Pharma, a developer and manufacturer of pharmaceutical and well-being products based on oral and intraoral delivery systems; and OtiTopic, a respiratory drug development company with a late-stage inhalable acetylsalicylic acid candidate for the prevention and treatment of acute myocardial infarction.

    The emergence of “innovation in wellness and healthcare” as a material sustainability topic concretely manifests “changes to our strategy and vision that prompted the revision of our Statement of Purpose, expanding it to no longer have as its last horizon to achieve a smoke-free future but also to encompass our strategic efforts to venture toward becoming a wellness and healthcare company,” Bostwick says. “Notably, we aspire to achieve at least $1 billion in net revenues from such sources by 2025. In wellness, we are developing and looking to commercialize scientifically substantiated consumer health products and solutions with the aim to improve people’s lives. In healthcare products, we have already committed resources to its development pipeline of over-the-counter and prescription products.” 

    Optimized Strategy

    As a consequence of the SMA’s results, PMI has also reframed its ESG framework to better articulate the ESG topics the company should focus on. “This framework recognizes two distinct forms of issues: Those that relate to our products—what we produce—which are part of the ‘Product Impact’ pillar and those related to our business operations—how we produce—which are part of the ‘Operational Impact’ pillar. We subsequently classified each topic based on its environmental, social or governance-related nature,” says Bostwick

    “This approach allows us to appropriately highlight that, consistent with our sustainability materiality analysis results, addressing the social impacts generated by our products is the core of our strategy. The biggest and most pressing negative externality our strategy aims to address is the health impacts of cigarette smoking. This is the most important contribution we can make to public health and is the cornerstone of PMI’s purpose and business strategy.”

    Following an acceleration of the company’s targets for carbon neutrality in its direct operations by 2025 and net-zero emissions across its value chain by 2040, the company aims to further develop its biodiversity strategy, covering all relevant areas of the company and its integration within its climate, water, forest and waste reduction efforts. “Noting the relevance that biodiversity and water have in our overall climate strategy and aims to preserve nature, we look forward to introducing 2025 targets that reflect our level of ambition,” Bostwick explains. “We expect to have a full set of targets and actionable milestones by the end of 2022.”