How collaborating with charities creates the business case for CSR

EXCLUSIVE: "Leaning" on charities provides a resource-driven platform to ensure that companies are "walking the talk" on delivering sustainability, catering and facilities company Sodexo has claimed.

At a Business in the Community event held in London this week (19 April), Sodexo’s corporate responsibility manager Edwina Hughes highlighted the “expertise and insight” that charity WWF offered in the build-up to the collaborative launch of Sodexo’s ‘Green & Lean’ sustainable meals pilot scheme.

Speaking to edie at the Responsible Business Week event, Hughes said: “Working with a charity like WWF is beneficial because they come from a different perspective. Its core purpose is to protect the environment and they put all of their energy and resources behind that.

“Working with them allows us to tap into their expertise and insight and we work with them to tell the parts of the story that we can influence. They work with us to help us understand where they are coming from but also to help us find the business case for action, because some of their conservation work wouldn’t fit into our company profile.”

Understanding purpose

Hughes has used the Lean & Green initiative – which launched 10 sustainable meal plans last year – to explore how businesses can place core values into products as a way to preach messages to consumers.

But with Sodexo’s latest annual CSR report revealing the extensive efforts the group is taking to deliver a promise to “enhance the quality of life of everyone that we come into contact with” – the group claims to influence the eating habits of 50 million people worldwide – Hughes noted that having a charity to lean on had proved vital in rolling-out the Green & Lean pilot to eight independent schools.

“I wanted to be able to say that these meals could serve certain purposes, and without the research and understanding of WWF, I wouldn’t be able to say what that purpose would be,” Hughes added. “WWF has been influential for me and they’ve pointed this initiative in the right direction. I feel like I’m on solid ground to promote this because [WWF] is alongside us.”

While having external help – especially from an organisation as vocal as WWF – can help push a company’s core values, Hughes believes that business and charity collaborations have to strike the “right balance” to ensure that staff members are also engaging with these values.

“When we started working, we had a budget for the partnership which was used to get people on WWF’s side involved in the initiative,” she said. “You need to make sure that you have an equal amount of resource and enthusiasm in the actual company in order to deliver. Otherwise you can create a bit of a mismatch in the partnership, so you need to be able to resource and motivate within the company.

“If I’m asking an executive chef to spend time developing recipes for a sustainable meal plan, I want him or her to be able to use the experience in other areas so that they can realise that it’s beneficial to their professional development and it will be another feather in their bow.”

Climate and me

Sodexo managed to make the environmental aspect of its meal plan visible by showing consumers the “carbon aspect” of the new meals. But with Hughes looking to add more meals to the 10 prototypes, Sodexo will now be spending more time to ensure that consumers are being sent the right message, noting that some “don’t necessarily understand concept of carbon”.

With the topic of the BITC event covering the issues of ‘purpose in products’, other speakers highlighted how products can bring far-reaching climate issues into the forefront of the consumer’s mind.

Charlie Dawson, partner at customer experience consultancy the Foundation, said: “Assuming that there’s not a compromise ‘for me’ in regards to the quality or price of a product, then people will start feeling good about the environmental benefits. It is the company’s choice to make that more visible, which if you are truly trying to create a better result for society means you are doing well and will continue to do well.”

Blueprint for Better Business’s senior advisor Loughlin Hickey also noted that working with charities can enable companies to “create a better answer” but that first a business needs to understand its role in society.

“Businesses need to think about ‘what they want’ and matching it with their own business purpose before using innovative approaches and matching them with charities and suppliers to create a better answer over time,” Hickey said. “You can’t tell people the answer, you have to co-create it.”

Matt Mace

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