From utilities to mining: How Veolia has paved the way for a circular economy
EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: Veolia's executive vice-president Estelle Brachlianoff discussed her biggest achievements, challenges and secrets to success in a revealing on-stage interview with edie.
Speaking to edie editor Luke Nicholls at the Sustainability Leaders Forum yesterday (20 November), Brachlianoff explained how the resource management company has adopted an operation-wide ethos to put sustainability at the heart of its operations, through its new 'Resourcing the World' strategy.
“When I was appointed here in the UK I found that the company was a little too comfortable. It was not leading the way or thinking beyond the traditional aspects of a business,” Brachlianoff said.
“But the way I would describe the company now is that we are a mining company - we extract everything we can, that customers don’t want, and we try to give it a second life and manufacture something else.”
Bumps and bells
Veolia is now a company that operates with a £2bn turnover, employing 14,000 in the UK. Brachlianoff stated that, in order to reach these heights, the company had to make internal decisions about the direction of the company and how to implement the newfound desire for change.
“The key concern was getting all our employees to follow guidelines and act in a way that will bring about a change. When I arrived you had the business, sustainability and CSR targets as separate entities but now they are one target that works together.” She said.
“Now I want my business to bring a solution for a fully working circular economy and for my employees to be proud for what we so as a business every day. The purpose of the company is not to make money. I want employees to be ambassadors in changing the world.”
Brachlianoff admitted that there had been bumps in the road, notably getting customers on board. She revealed that consumers have been notoriously tricky to convince on the ideology of sustainability, compared with board members and employees.
However, once Veolia started mentioning the potential cost savings of more sustainable ways of doing business to those consumers, then eventually "the bells started to ring". This was helped in part by numerous behavioural change schemes launched by Brachlianoff.
Veolia now plays a pioneering role in the circular economy. As one recent example, the firm is attempting to make Leeds "a hub for circular economy innovation", induced by a flagship energy-from-waste (EfW) plant. The company also continues to roll-out innovative reuse schemes. But Brachlianoff realises that there is only so much work Veolia can do in isolation to promote a circular economy.
She added: “We are a part of the circular economy but it is hard for one company to create a full circle. We need to take something that is wasted and transform it to be used and sold by someone else. It needs other companies to make it happen, so we see ourselves as the engine.
“It’s all about collaboration, we can’t do it 100% alone, and to improve on this businesses need a shift in the mind-set.”
On the Paris climate talks, Brachlianoff is refusing to get her hopes up, noting that there was a life before Paris and there will be one after. Instead, she is more interested in the roles a business can play in pushing towards a low-carbon world.
“The fact that businesses can be part of the solution is a huge achievement for me,” she said. However in order to get businesses on board with the circular economy she recommends approaching them in the right language.
“Don’t talk too much about sustainability, talk business sense instead,” she added, “If you can become bilingual in business and sustainability language, you can rule the world.”
Later on in the day, Brachlianoff was announced as the Sustainability Leader of the Year at edie's 2015 Sustainability Leaders Awards. She was praised by judges for her continued passion and commitment to bringing others along with Veolia's sustainability journey.
Download full winners case studies from the Awards here.
Luke Nicholls & Matt Mace