The future of sustainability entails concepts such as ethical sourcing, understanding societal inequities, choosing responsible stock materials, managing consumption and properly handling waste and end-of-life assets.

March 1, 2024

Beyond Green Buildings: A New Vision for Life Sciences Sustainability

Explore the transformation from traditional green practices to a holistic ecosystem model in life sciences, aiming for a sustainable future with global impact.


Sustainability in the life sciences industry has evolved significantly over the past 30 years. The earliest rollouts centered on energy savings and expanded to include broader topics such as the occupant experience and green building construction and operation.

However, the historical (and current) approach has a major flaw in that it’s inward-looking for each organization, focused on choices and behaviors that primarily affect their own facility. To address this flaw and for the industry to move forward with a leading vision, the next step is to begin to focus on outward-looking initiatives, effectively shifting from a silo mentality toward one of an integrated ecosystem.

To understand why the ecosystem model is the logical next iteration of sustainability in life sciences, it is helpful to revisit the industry’s sustainability past.

Many pioneering sustainability efforts, such as LEED and ENERGYSTAR, had their roots in the early 1990s. At the time, there was a growing social awareness and general advocacy for lessening the impact of business on the environment. Of course, the operational cost savings associated with decreased energy consumption were the significant driver for the industry’s willingness to embrace change.

Both the public and private sectors realized the opportunities to optimize the energy efficiency of buildings, homing in on a building’s most energy-intensive needs, such as heating, cooling and electrical devices. For a while, this approach served the industry well. New construction projects experienced energy cost savings when compared to equivalent legacy facilities. Renovations to older facilities also produced operational savings that offset the capital investment.

The next evolution came in the early 2010s, when sustainability efforts expanded to include human health components. This next phase went beyond the building’s systems and energy savings, extending to its inhabitants and usage. Efforts such as WELL and LEED v4 sought to be intentional about creating building spaces that contributed to healthier and happier employees.

Architects, engineers, and constructors began considering elements such as access to sunlight, movement throughout the facility, sound attenuation and construction materials. It’s been well-documented that happy and efficient employees help an organization’s productivity and, ultimately, its bottom line. The shift from a building-first outlook to an occupant-first mindset had occurred.

With a move toward more holistic thinking, green building initiatives gained momentum, with increased awareness of using responsibly sourced materials and minimizing waste. The realities of climate change and global supply chain constraints drove innovation in areas such as adaptive reuse of materials and selection of alternative materials with less climate impact.

Thousands of life sciences organizations making intentional changes to their operations is objectively a positive outcome when aggregated; consider the energy saved, emissions avoided and materials preserved by these collective efforts. However, even combined, these collective actions barely move the needle on a global scale. Studies have shown that these choices achieve, at best, low-single-digit percentage reductions in key measurements like carbon emissions for an organization’s net operations.

Carbon emissions, a major measurable element of sustainability efforts, can be classified via three scopes. Scope 1 is the direct emission from a company’s facilities, which, surprisingly, represent less than 2% of its total carbon footprint on average. Scope 2 is the indirect emission from energy production and usage (i.e., power plants). Depending on the energy source, this figure can represent up to 10% of an organization's carbon footprint.

Scope 3 is the indirect emission from the entire value chain of an organization and is considered the holy grail of opportunity. At more than 85% of an organization’s carbon footprint, Scope 3 covers the vast ecosystem of a company’s impact and goes far beyond the facility walls. It encompasses a broad spectrum of elements related to its operations, including business travel, commuting, office supplies, IT needs, distribution and transportation. It even covers how materials are produced, sourced, utilized and, ultimately, disposed of.

Scope 3 emissions are the most overlooked and under-addressed aspects of the industry’s current sustainability efforts. This generation of business goals is driven by corporate visions, regulatory demands and public image. The next step entails concepts such as ethical sourcing, understanding societal inequities, choosing responsible stock materials, managing consumption and properly handling waste and end-of-life assets.

Of course, changing the ecosystem at the global level requires buy-in from partners, suppliers and downstream consumers. It reflects a fundamental shift from the old industry mindset of competition to one of collaborative effort. Changing ways of working can be uncomfortable, but the industry must adapt and evolve to the next level of sustainable practices. Especially impactful (and just as challenging) is shifting consumer behaviors.

Instilling and maintaining these transformative behaviors – and having leaders with the vision and patience to see them realized – will be vital to success. The life sciences industry, while often a pioneer when it comes to scientific discovery, too frequently trails other sectors when it comes to manufacturing operations. That’s why it’s promising to see signs that a shift is already underway, with many organizations including bold ecosystem sustainability goals in their plans for 2024 and beyond.

The ecosystem approach has seen increasing support and has been widely embraced throughout the industry. It’s the topic of many key conference seminars and professional organization meetings and is even making its way into updated corporate mission statements. It’s exciting to not only watch this next evolution of sustainability but to participate as a leader as well.

At Haskell, we bring our extensive experience to all sustainability projects. Whether it’s a greenfield facility, a small renovation or anything in between, our team has a wealth of tools and knowledge to ensure a successful project outcome in achieving your sustainability goals. Please contact us and let us know how we can serve you and help your organization lead the industry efforts!

About the Author: Michael Asher is the Director of Operations for Haskell’s Life Sciences Division. He is a credentialed Project Management Professional (PMP) from the Project Management Institute (PMI) and a Certified Project Manager (CPM) from the Project Management Leadership Group (PMLG). He holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

Haskell delivers $2± billion annually in Architecture, Engineering, Construction (AEC) and Consulting solutions to assure certainty of outcome for complex capital projects worldwide. Haskell is a global, fully integrated, single-source design-build and EPC firm with over 2,200 highly specialized, in-house design, construction and administrative professionals across industrial and commercial markets. With 20+ office locations around the globe, Haskell is a trusted partner for global and emerging clients.

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