In the latest in my series of interviews with today’s leading business thinkers I spoke with Thomas Jelley, Corporate Citizenship Manager at support services giant Sodexo.

But why, you may wonder, is a B2B marketing research agency like Circle talking about sustainability.  Isn’t that the preserve of a niche team within corporations and NGOs?

Well, no.  Increasingly sustainability is becoming embedded throughout corporates and amongst individual departments – including marketing – for three very compelling reasons.

A solid approach to sustainability shows that your organisation cares and is ‘one of us’.  This in turn communicates positive brand messages such as trust, creates a favourable brand personality and builds affinity.  Conversely, at the other extreme failing to act as a decent corporate citizen can seriously damage a brand and the bottom line.  Just ask News International (phone hacking scandal), BAE (al Yamamah bribery case) or Compass (alleged rigging of UN tenders).

Sustainability is also starting to drive another of marketing’s remits: product innovation.  For example, organisational IT buyers are increasingly seeking low power ‘green’ IT solutions.

If you’re not convinced so far, here’s the clincher: sales.  Many tenders issued to B2B suppliers, especially those from government, now include sustainability requirements as standard.  Failure to meet these means quite simply that the bid will fail.

Let’s hear what the expert has to say.

Thomas, sustainability means different things to different people. How do you define it?

If you take the word by its literal meaning, it’s the ability to continue something over a long period of time.  This is a simplistic definition but one worth remembering when countered with doubts about the essence of ‘sustainability’.

Of course, in the contemporary vernacular, the concept gets more traction when seen as shorthand for responsible business, business that combines economic, social and environmental factors in decision making.

Why is sustainability important?

Let me give you a little background about Sodexo.

We employ 380,000 people worldwide, of whom 43,000 work in the UK and Ireland.  Sustainability is a fundamental part of their lives whether consciously or not; they may be doing things at home to reduce energy consumption; they make considered decisions about what to buy in the supermarket and they may be asked searching questions about sustainability by their children.

Each and every one of our clients also has its own sustainability agenda.

Imagine a primary school that is concerned about what its pupils are fed at lunchtime or where the food comes from; or it might be a large international account that has similarly challenging objectives in a variety of geographies.

In both of these examples clients are looking to us for help.  They want us to challenge them and ourselves, they often want us to advise them, but above all they want us to be their trusted partner who will help them deliver on the sustainability challenges that we all share.

So our involvement can be absolutely critical to clients.  We operate on our clients’ premises, we use their utilities, we feed them, we feed their own employees and we feed their customers, we manage their facilities to make sure that they are safe, comfortable, productive places.  Our relationships are more like partnerships – they’re based on trust in designing, managing and delivering comprehensive service solutions that contribute to the quality of daily life, not just commoditised services.

Has sustainability moved beyond a simple ‘ticking the box’ exercise?

Without doubt; let me give you an example.

In the past the questions that clients asked were “do you have an environmental policy?” or “do you have a diversity and inclusion policy?”  Now they’re asking us, and in some cases insisting, that we prepare a plan to deliver sustainability initiatives to their business.

So there’s no doubt that sustainability is becoming more and more important in the conversations we’re having with clients.  It’s right up there, jostling for attention high up the agenda.

Clearly sustainability is of great importance to Sodexo. Can you tell me a little more about how it’s evolved in the business?

It all started with Pierre Bellon who founded Sodexo in 1966.

He put a lot of thought into the kind of organisation that he wanted to create and from the outset he was adamant that he wanted to create an organisation that would improve the quality of daily life for everyone it served and would also contribute to the economic and social development of everywhere it operated.  Environmental development was subsequently added to this in the ‘90s as a third string.

What’s interesting, and of course this may not be the same amongst other businesses, is that this means sustainability is embedded within the Sodexo mission.  It’s enshrined within the organisation and has been from the beginning.

Can you tell me about some of the sustainability initiatives that have been undertaken within Sodexo?

We feel that we have an important and responsible role to play in this.  One of the things we’re known for is the STOP Hunger initiative.  It started in the US in the mid 90’s but has become a global Sodexo initiative, which aims to alleviate hunger and to educate people around nutrition and life skills.  It’s been viral as now there are some 40 countries where Sodexo has embraced STOP Hunger.

One of our priorities has been to achieve greater consistency in our approach to sustainability, and this is especially useful for clients who operate across a number of different sites.  We address consistency through the ‘Better Tomorrow Plan’, our sustainability strategy to 2020, which we launched in 2009.

We need to be responsive to the needs of clients, but we try to be proactive and show leadership too.  A good example of this is that in December last year we were able to announce that all our sites in the UK are able to serve MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified fish.  We started this process off in the Education sector and have rolled it out from there.

Aside from Sodexo, are there any particular companies or sectors that you particularly admire and respect from a sustainability perspective?

I’ve been very impressed with a number of the retailers, even though they’re often the organisations that people love to hate.

I’ll give you an example.  Several of them support FareShare, the national food poverty and food redistribution charity, that takes surplus fit for consumption food from the food industry to feed some 29,000 people a day at local community organisations across the country.

Many of the supermarkets are also, like us, involved in important ethical and sustainable supply chain initiatives such as promoting the Marine Stewardship Council’s certified fish and publicising fair trade around cash crop commodities such as coffee and bananas.

They’ve also done a lot of work in their supply chains.  If you think about the likes of the Ethical Trading Initiative or SEDEX, which we’re also members of, a lot of the work has been driven by large retailers.  What’s happened in retail has had a knock on effect on foodservice and we’re learning all the time.

You’ve mostly talked about sustainability, but where does diversity and inclusion fit in?

By definition our 43,000 employees represent a diverse workforce who in turn serve an incredibly diverse range of clients and customers.  It’s our belief that how we support our people to give their best to client and customer service is in part down to creating an inclusive workplace, a culture in which people feel that their diversity is valued and appreciated.

Through a UK and Ireland Diversity and Inclusion Council that was founded in 2008, we’ve been really supporting the agenda through some pretty large pieces of work.

One of these is our Spirit of Inclusion training, which is a piece of day-long training that is compulsory for all our managers.  It really explains what diversity means and makes a strong business and moral case for inclusion.  We explain that inclusion is about behaviours and what you do about diversity; it’s where you get the value of diversity.

What is the benefit of all these initiatives?

A more engaged workforce.  It means that people are happier, they’re better motivated and more productive.  Sodexo is ultimately a better place to work and a better organisation to have working for you.

Ultimately this supports bottom line benefit.

What would you say are some of the challenges in delivering these initiatives to your workforce and ultimately to clients?

The challenges are the bread and butter of our business.  This is a decentralised organisation, that is geographically dispersed, that operates in the UK and Ireland on a couple of thousand sites, worldwide on 30,000 plus sites, where no two sites are the same.  So it’s not as if one size fits all.

Capturing data from each and every site is a big challenge.  For example, each year we have an annual Better Tomorrow Plan survey of environmental activity at each site.  It’s mostly done online and covers an audit of different things such as discussing with clients targets for reducing energy consumption or use of energy reducing technology site equipment.

Measurement is also critical in tracking the effectiveness of what we’re doing in the workplace around issues such as diversity and inclusion.  We run a major employee engagement research project every two years, which monitors how we’re doing and what has changed since the last wave.

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About Andrew

Andrew has specialised in B2B research for over a decade and co-founded Circle Research in 2006. He is a columnist for B2B Marketing Magazine, a regular contributor to Research Live and frequent speaker at leading events such as the B2B Leaders Forum, Customer Experience Live and the Social Media World Forum. Andrew is a Chartered Member of the MRS, teaches the MRS B2B research course and holds an MA in Psychology from Aberdeen University alongside an MSc in Marketing from Strathclyde University.

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