Monday, December 1, 2014

419,317 reasons to report on sustainability

At Sodexo, every employee counts, and the company aims to engage every employee in the organization's corporate responsibility efforts. Sodexo is a great example of where the reporting process has become an empowering element of corporate practice, rather than just a document to show to external stakeholders at the end of the annual cycle.

Sodexo is one of the largest companies in the world by employee headcount (the 18th largest private employer), with 419,317 people on board at the end of fiscal 2014, working across more than 33,200 sites. More than 95% of Sodexo employees are in daily contact with clients and serve 75 million consumers each day in 80 countries.  Sodexo provides "Quality of Life services" which includes diversified outsourcing services, benefits and reward services, and personal and home services, adding value to the work and well-being of people in a wide variety of organizations from offices to hospitals to universities and more. In this size and scale of organization, implementing a global strategy is complex and not without a range of unique challenges, especially when most of the sites your employees operate from belong to clients.

Sodexo's reporting reflects this size and scale. Headquartered in France, Sodexo publishes an annual integrated report (Registration Document) that conforms to the French Grenelle II disclosure requirements, and also includes just about everything everyone might want to know, and yet, remains accessible and interesting to read (all 372 pages... well, almost all). Aside from financials and Grenelle II, the Registration Document references GRI G4 guidelines, ISO 26000 standard and the UN Global Compact principles, bringing everything together in a single content index.

What makes this report fascinating, however, is the way sustainability is embedded as part of the core approach as well as a business discipline that is managed and led right from the tone at the top. With a business mission that is a social mission as well - to improve the Quality of Life of our employees and all those we serve - applicable both internally and externally, Sodexo's sustainable development journey is aligned in all respects. The opening statement from the company's founder and chairman, Pierre Bellon, is well worth a read - describing a life-philosophy as well as an approach to sustainable business growth that many would do well to learn from. His personal and business insights are quite inspiring - including ten important trends that are shaping the way business develops, and five important priorities for Sodexo.

Within the report, there are many (many!) short case studies and insights about how Sodexo's work is making a difference ... from supporting the IBM LEED certified Technology Center in Chile, to winning a workplace foodservices award in Scotland to providing Quality of Life services including health and safety programs for offshore drilling fleets to foodservices for the mining industry in Mozambique to supporting prisoner rehabilitation in UK prisons to supporting environmentally childcare facilities in France. The diversity of clients and nature of services provided is quite incredible. And while these are all core business services for Sodexo, they all fall under the umbrella of improving Quality of Life. That also makes them sustainability services.

Sodexo's CSR approach is brought together under its corporate responsibility roadmap: the Better Tomorrow Plan, which has its own dedicated section in the Registration Document a robust section on Sodexo's website. With many stories of how the Better Tomorrow Plan is put into practice around the world, the Registration Document details Sodexo's actions within its priorities to employees, promote nutrition, health and wellness, support local communities and protect the environment. The company also maintains and hosts a separate, independent website that presents thought leadership relating to Quality of Life.

A chat with Sodexo
In the run-up to the fourth annual Smarter Sustainability Conference in London on 24th February 2015, which I chair, I took the opportunity to talk to Neil Barrett,  Sodexo's Group Vice President Sustainable Development. 

ME: How do you get such a massive, sprawling and complex organization like Sodexo aligned behind a cohesive sustainability approach?

NEIL: "One of the key developments of the group has been the greater alignment on sustainable development actions. Some years ago, we created the Better Tomorrow Plan. It was eighteen months in the making. We undertook a huge engagement and dialogue program with stakeholder groups to make sure we understood the issues that were important to them. When we launched this roadmap in 2009, one of the things we did right, in retrospect, was to devote the first year to getting our people on board. Because of scale of breadth of our organization, we took a solid twelve months to engage people internally on why this was important, what our priorities are and the commitments we undertook. That was time well invested. It also allowed us to establish a baseline on our various commitments across 33,000 different sites where our people work. Because we are represented on client sites, the reporting challenge for us is heightened versus organizations that have operations within facilities they directly control or operate. As we provide our services on client sites, it took some time to understand what we should report on, what we can control and influence and how we should measure our performance for our own benefit and for the benefit of our clients."

ME: How do you manage to maintain consistency and discipline around reporting and performance management?

NEIL: "We have two kinds of indicators: Progress indicators and impact indicators. In the area of progress indicators, we have created a level of awareness around expected behaviors - what actions our employees can take on site to help improve our clients' sustainability performance. We have equipped our site managers with all they need to support sustainability processes at clients' sites and manage how we engage with the client. On the impact indicators side, we look to see how we measure the impact of our actions for our clients or consumers. Additionally, we established an effective governance structure right from the beginning. It has stood us fairly well over the past five years and we are able to report our progress in a consistent way. Every year we survey all our sites for information about their sustainable development activities and this is then consolidated at a regional and group level. We get a range of information about the environmental aspects of our activities and impacts on our clients. We put this system in place back in 2009. Actually it has stood us in very good stead for the introduction of the French Commercial Code Grenelle II Act in France in 2012. We already had everything in place to be able to report."

ME: Is all the effort collecting data worth it?

NEIL: "Each year we review our progress and what we have achieved, but it is not just about reporting. It's about engagement. Our reporting processes help our people understand the reasons they are taking action, what areas they should be focusing on and where they need to go if they need guidance. The data we collect helps us create site-based reports. Each site manager gets a report that is designed for sharing with the client, showing comparative performance and benchmarks with other sites. It shows how the site is performing or even under-performing. The site managers are able to provide clients with details that help engage the client in discussion with our site teams. This becomes an ongoing dialogue which ensures we all focus on achieving the right outcomes for all parties. This goes right back to the launch of the Better Tomorrow Plan and its governance. We have more than 100 Better Tomorrow Champions in the business who help facilitate these processes. You can imagine that they are very active at reporting time! For us, this is all about engagement, reporting, serving our clients better, empowering our people and making a positive contribution. Ultimately it supports improving Quality of Life. So, yes, it's worth it."

ME: What else has worked well?

NEIL: "One of the very pleasing outcomes this year has been that Sodexo was awarded Sector Leadership in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for the 10th consecutive year. As standards and expectations have evolved we have been able to maintain our industry leadership position. Such external recognition validates our approach and efforts and also reinforces the fact that we are moving in the right direction. We were also awarded this year the sector leader and most-improved company in the CDP Forests Report. And many other recognitions. I have to say that this is also increasingly being viewed by clients as important. It's a ticket to play. Clients want to deal with companies that can demonstrate a commitment to sustainability and corporate responsibility and can assist them in their sustainability journey."

ME: How do you manage to report everything in one integrated document? You have so much going on….

NEIL: "It's been a challenge to pull everything together in the one document, but we have invested the time to consolidate everything into one report. We used to produce a number of different annual reports. Consolidating everything is much clearer both for us and for our audiences. The drive for simplification has helped. With a myriad of metrics, it helps give us a better sense of what we are doing and achieving. We have also tried to make it accessible – communicating in a way that people can understand. We are now in the process of doing a materiality refresh… some themes have moved around but, by and large, the issues and priorities mainly are just as valid today as they were some years ago. Some of our targets will be completed by 2015, and we are now looking towards setting new ones for the coming years to continue our progress."


I am looking forward to meeting Neil at the 4th annual Smarter Sustainability Reporting Conference.

He'll be speaking on "Leading ways to measure corporate responsibility impacts". Judging by our conversation, he'll have a whole lot more to share. Don't miss it!

PS: I want to thank John Friedman, Sodexo's Corporate Responsibility Communications Director, who is also long-time social media buddy and prominent writer, blogger and commentator, for connecting me with Neil. Check out John's writings at the Huffington Post.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Check out our G4 Report Expert Analysis Service - for published G4 reports or pre-publication - write to Elaine at to help make your G4 reporting  even better. 

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