Sustainable Future: How Bunzl is using the SDGs to raise its sustainability ambitions

EXCLUSIVE: Just one year after publishing the inaugural report on its Sustainable Future sustainability strategy, Bunzl Catering Supplies has moved to align itself with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in a bid to maximise its positive social and environmental impact.

The firm’s latest Sustainable Future brochure, published earlier this autumn, outlines how the business has been working to align its sustainability actions with five of the 17 Global Goals since the start of 2018, namely Goal 3, good health and wellbeing; Goal 12, responsible consumption and production; Goal 13, climate action; Goal 14, life below water and Goal 15, life on land.

This alignment will see the company, which delivers a range of 15,000 catering products to customers across the UK, focus on just five goals until 2020, as it claims that this is where it can have the “most meaningful impact”.

But, as Bunzl’s head of sustainability for catering and hospitality Joanna Gilroy explained, the company is keen to avoid accusations of “cherry picking” by choosing to focus on these set SDGs at the beginning of its SDG alignment journey.

“Facing a similar challenge to many other companies – namely that budgets are always limited – we had to decide either to adopt all 17 goals knowing that it would slow down the impact we could have on each one, or focus on those which were of pressing concern and which we could have the maximum impact on,” Gilroy told edie.

“What is of real importance to us is that we actually deliver measurable progress.”

But what does measurable mean for Bunzl?

While some of the Goals come pre-equipped with clear metrics for businesses – with the likes of retailers, food and drinks producers and local authorities pledging to halve their food waste after aligning with SDG 2, for example – Gilroy admitted that the “softer” targets of some goals had required Bunzl to take a “more creative” approach to measure its impact.

The fact that some of the SDGs do not pose specific, numerical targets or metrics with which to measure progress has led Bunzl to develop its own set of goals and metrics, which have received backing at boardroom level.

The company has encouraged other businesses to adopt sustainable practices under SDG 13. For example, Bunzl has set up a regular sustainability forum with its customers, where it provides them with information on best practice.

Gilroy explained that the success of such forums would be measured using factors such as how many customers attended – and whether attendee numbers were higher or lower than at previous events – and following up with such companies to establish whether they had taken new actions or set new targets themselves.

“Sustainability, historically, has been very focused on environmental management, so one of the beauties of the SDGs is that the framework allows us to think a bit more creatively as to how we measure impact,” Gilroy said.

“We are determined not to get bogged down in the numbers and think about how to measure things in a qualitative way – for example through interviews, discussion groups, forums and product labelling. I believe these can still demonstrate improvement and impact without hard-and-fast numerical data.”

Embedding vs retrofitting

Gilroy emphasised that a further danger of choosing to align an existing corporate sustainability strategy with the SDGs is being accused of “retrofitting”, or mapping the Goals onto existing programmes without pushing for more ambitious action.

In a bid to avoid this problem, Bunzl’s sustainability team worked closely with its senior management team to identify the “gaps” between the company’s existing actions and the impact it will need to deliver to achieve SDG alignment. New targets were then created to address these gaps, such as holding quarterly forums to share best practice examples surrounding carbon, waste and wellbeing with customers.

For Gilroy, this collaboration with senior management to bolster Bunzl’s ambitions was the key to making SDG alignment a success.

“One of the recipes for success with the SDGs and something that I believe is essential is making them relevant to every business function,” she said. “If you keep them siloed and reserve them for the sustainability team, you won’t be able to drive the maximum amount of impact.”

Looking to the future, Gilroy explained that while Bunzl’s sustainability and senior management team will set time aside in 2020 to decide whether more SDGs should be embedded in its strategies, 2018 has served as a “transition year” to amalgamate the Sustainable Future Strategy with the SDGs.

“We had this embryonic programme, but what it needed was more ambition, more structure and to be more hard-hitting – and that shift came from the SDGs,” she concluded. “I think they are the most relevant programme of their time, which, crucially, put sustainability into a common language.”


Sarah George

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