A Hard Pill To Swallow



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Hyderabad in India is the world’s biggest manufacturing site for medicine. More than 50% of India’s global exports of medicine are produced here, and make up the major share of medicine imported to the US, Europe and Sweden – our home market. But due to lack of environmental oversight, many factories in Hyderabad still dump their waste straight into nature. This means the medicine we take for our health in Sweden and other wealthy countries is actively making people sick and polluting the environment in parts of the world struggling with bigger inequalities. Apotek Hjärtat, Sweden’s biggest privately owned pharmacy, has been working actively with sustainability since the start in 2010. In 2019 we decided to do our part in making pharmaceuticals more sustainable, and make sure the medicine we sell doesn’t harm others, even though it meant going against our own industry.


We collected 100 liters of water near the pharmaceutical factories in Hyderabad in collaboration with Sweden’s most outstanding laboratories, RISE (Research Institutes of Sweden). We then analyzed the water and extracted the active substances, resulting in a completely new kind of medicine: Sordidum Pharmacum - a deadly cocktail extracted from pharma polluted water. The new ”medicine” was used in an integrated campaign (print, TVC, OOH, SoMe) that aimed to open the eyes of the general public in order to put pressure on politicians in Sweden and the EU. We sent the pills to politicians together with a medication package insert that states what we found in the water, what the effects are, and what we wanted to be done; adding sustainability as a criteria in the procurement of pharmaceuticals on a nationwide level.


The data was originally gathered in water containers. The data at the core of our campaign came from the river water from Hyderabad, which we brought home to Sweden for an independent analysis from the prestigious RISE laboratories (Research Institutes of Sweden). Much as expected, they found active substances from medicines for fungal infections, hypertension, opiates for pain relief, epilepsy, cancer and HIV. This data formed the core of the campaign. We also supported the analysis of the river water with a national consumer survey, showing that 8 out of 10 Swedes wanted clearer information on how different medications affected the environment, and that over 3 out of 4 would choose another medicine if they found out their original choice was more harmful to the environment. Using this data, we could mobilize the general public, and put pressure on politicians to change laws.


The water was collected from the vicinity of pharmaceutical factories in the summer of 2019. After that, RISE performed examinations and extractions during August and September. The result was 60 grams of extracted substances that were turned into Sordidum Pharmacum pills. The pills were shown at our pharmacies, sent to politicians and used in all our activities. On our website we informed the public on the issues and result of not having a sustainability criteria when procuring pharmaceuticals. On the website they could also download the official lab report from RISE and find out how they could influence the politicians to act. We spread the initiative via long and short films, various print ads aimed at politicians and the public in Sweden’s largest newspapers and through traditional PR. In addition, we invited all of our competitors to join in launching a sustainability label based on our precursor “Follow Your Heart”.


The campaign received heavy coverage in Swedish news, was seen by 1/3 of the population, drove 1 in 10 Swedes to visit the campaign site and generated 10 000 downloads of the report. Back in India, it was covered by the world’s second largest English newspaper - The Times of India. But more importantly, it changed things. The campaign led to all major Swedish pharmacies launching a shared label for sustainable pharmaceuticals, based on Apotek Hjärtats original label. Two of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies have contacted Apotek Hjärtat to see what they need to change to receive the label. A new law will soon be passed in Swedish parliament demanding stricter environmental criteria when procuring pharmaceuticals. By turning pollution into a pill we made the problem real enough for people to react and politicians to act, and revealed the problems hidden under the surface of the pharmaceutical world.

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