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Our Insights 27 Oct 2016

Shared Responsibilities: Corporate Leaders for Health

By Matt Loose


As the need for action on health grows we are beginning to see a shift in the types of companies working to improve societal health and wellness. Matt Loose looks at the challenges we face and speaks to Heather Rubin at Disney, one of a growing number of unlikely leaders for health.

The global health challenge is a defining obstacle on our path to a sustainable future. The rapid rise in obesity rates (to 13% of adults in 2014), pandemic non-communicable diseases (killing 38 million annually), ageing populations and shocking levels of child mortality (5% of children globally do not reach five years old) have placed global health at the centre of the UN’s 2030 Global Goals. While health care costs balloon – predicted to rise 9% globally in 2016 – it’s clear that the public purse cannot meet our health needs. With the need growing and government capacity to act being limited, companies are increasingly in the spotlight and facing regulatory pressure to act or stepping in to explore emerging business opportunities to meet these needs.

Some sectors and companies are clearly on the front line of the battle to improve our health. For health services companies, medical equipment companies, and the global pharmaceutical industry (with annual revenues of over $1 trillion), growing health needs directly grow markets and improve growth potential.

There are though an increasing range of companies, from sectors where health may not be an obvious driver of business success, stepping in to provide health and wellness related services. The stakes for companies are potentially huge and are starting to become front and centre in business strategy decisions. The recent appointment of a new CEO for global food giant Nestlé is a case in point. Rather than appoint a food industry insider, the company has plumped for a leader from the health services sector signalling the importance of health to its future success.

It’s clear that the public purse cannot meet our health needs.

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Disney is one of a growing number of health leaders and recognises its responsibility stretches far beyond just entertainment. I spoke to Heather Rubin, who directs the company’s work on healthy living in the corporate citizenship team, to find out about its approach to health.

The company is defined by its commitment to children and families and Heather spoke of the company’s awareness of the generation of kids facing significant health issues relating to lifestyles, exercise and nutrition. Since 2006, Disney has had a commitment to creating healthier generations. Disney has explored how it can use its brands, characters, and media platforms to promote healthier foods to kids. It’s pushed Disney to explore how it does, and can, affect health outcomes across its business, from using its brands to promote healthy foods to changing its food offer in parks.

Heather directs Disney’s work on its company’s healthy living commitment. She works to understand consumer insights and decision-making and is part of a team that includes experts in nutrition and youth engagement. The work is shaped through dialogue and research with parents and health experts. As she emphasises: “We need to work in partnership with parents. It’s critical we understand how we can help.” This evidence-based approach allows Disney to target health interventions that can have the most impact, and resonate most with its customers. As Heather puts it: “Through our research, parents tell us they know what healthy is. It is about more exercise, more fruits and vegetables, and eating more home cooked, nutritious meals. The challenge parents face is getting their whole family to participate. They need help making these things fun and appealing for kids. We create experiences that kids love and parents trust. So we knew if we stuck to the core tenets of our brand, we can make a difference.”

Since 2006, Disney has had a commitment to creating healthier generations.

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Heather describes how Disney is ensuring it is making progress across the company and describes how, “promoting nutrition in the right way [which] requires us to work across the business, from our standards for responsible marketing to systems to monitor progress and compliance.”

Another area of focus is understanding how parents are responding to efforts such as the healthy choices available in resorts and whether its Mickey food check labels are supporting healthier choices. Shaping healthy living behaviours is also a key component and Disney tests whether its programming inspires behaviour change. According to Heather: “Our research suggests that there is a significant upswing in healthy eating among kids through our Healthy Living Commitment.” Finally, Disney supports organisations working in this area through strategic philanthropy: “The way we think about this is, if it takes a village to raise one child, it’s going to take us all working together to inspire healthy generations.” She ends by stressing the importance of using, “the creative power of Disney to help make healthy choices fun.”

Corporate Leaders for Health

At SustainAbility we see an urgent need for more companies to actively support health outcomes. Market mechanisms to recognise, support and stretch corporate ambitions for business action on health will be vital to supporting the scale of ambition required.

Emerging corporate leadership on health is needed and very welcome but companies stepping into this space face some challenging questions.

  • Which companies and sectors are most important to improving our health?
  • What’s the business rationale for companies to address health?
  • What are the health priorities that companies should focus on?
  • What are the most effective business models for companies to apply to support health outcomes?
  • Who do companies need to work with?
  • What standards are companies working to?

SustainAbility will be launching ‘Corporate Leaders for Health’ that will seek answers and support companies working across sectors to improve health and wellness.

Find out more

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