INTERVIEW: The man driving Sodexo’s net-zero plan

Sean Haley, UK & Ireland chairman, tells David Burrows about the need for regulation on food waste, the opportunities in adapting menus – and why he encourages scrutiny of the contract caterer’s carbon reduction targets.

In a world littered with net-zero commitments it’s not always easy to unpick who is targeting what, let alone how. Sodexo UK & Ireland’s goals are pretty clear – and ambitious. In October the food, catering and facilities management firm announced three broad greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction deadlines:

1. Reduce absolute scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions 34% by 2025 

2.   Reduce absolute scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions 55% by 2030 

3.   Reduce absolute scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions 90% by 2045. 

The first two have already been validated by the science-based targets initiative, with the third submitted to the initiative in January. “We can get there,” says Sean Haley, regional chairman for Sodexo UK&I and the man leading the business’s net-zero commitments. “We want to tackle the root cause and change the way [both] we and the industry works – because at some point it has to.”

Haley, in an interview with Footprint, says he joined Sodexo (in 2011) because of its purpose-led ethos, a company that “genuinely wants to do good business and make a difference”. As far as curbing carbon goes, this has of late become “non-negotiable”. 

Sodexo is working on a 2017 baseline of emissions. According to figures released to Footprint, the UK&I arm of the business emitted a total of 1,160,367 tonnes of CO2e in that year, of which 99% (1,143,164tCO2e) were in scope 3. Scope 1 (14,430) and 2 (2,772) emissions amount to the other 1%.

As of 2021 the overall footprint had shrunk to 713,933tCO2, a decrease of 38.5%. Progress has been made but there is also a ‘pandemic factor’ to account for, with national lockdowns and work from home mandates severely restricting the operations of any contract catering business. The fact that by 2030 Sodexo’s total emissions need to fall much further than the covid-hit years shows just how aggressive its emission reduction programme needs to be. “You really can’t do this alone,” Haley says, but “I think we have a positive perfect storm”.

Sodexo’s scopes

Sodexo was one of 80 companies chosen to road test the SBTi’s target validation criteria and guidance for its new net-zero standard. The company has been pushing others to join and Haley is clearly grateful to have leaned on the external expertise that also adds credibility to the targets. WWF has for example helped ensure “we understood all the detail to allow us to develop the plan”. It was time and money well spent, he suggests.

Indeed, tracking emissions for a business like Sodexo is no piece of cake. Most emissions lie in scope 3, so within client environments and with its suppliers. “Understanding those is more challenging,” says Haley, “but that work has been undertaken and we’re confident we understand what the job is”. Now the hard graft starts.

Step one is a net-zero questionnaire for suppliers. There is also a target to ensure 33% of menus are plant-based by 2025. There is a huge education job ahead and this business is one that’s well-placed to shift buying choices. Haley says: “Let’s remember we’re experts in this. […] we can work with our consumers and our clients to not only educate but provide menu choices that are still very, very attractive.” 

Making sure that consumers and clients have the data and information to make informed choices is also essential, he adds. “If we’re going to try to develop new ways of working and new menus to an audience that understands why and the impact they have, then it becomes much easier.” Despite its size – Sodexo was serving in excess of one million meals a day prior to the pandemic –no one business can accelerate such a behavioural shift alone. Government could lend a hand given how sensitive this topic – eating less meat – can be, he adds. 

Green governing

The government is one of Sodexo’s biggest customers so the company doesn’t go seeking public conflict. However, on food waste it has recently been leading calls for much-needed policy interventions: the opportunity in relation to emissions is “just not understood” and is “just not sufficiently on the agenda”, says Haley. A Sodexo survey of almost 300 heads of procurement, supply chain and sourcing last year showed 74% are not tracking the amount of food their organisations are wasting. Some 1.1 million tonnes (12% of the UK total) derive from hospitality and food service, according to Wrap.

Haley notes how effective the rules for mandatory reporting on (prompt) payments have been. “If [the government] were to do the same with food waste it would drive the right behaviours, because we had to change in response to prompt payments and we would absolutely have to change in response to measurement of waste,” he explains. “Everyone’s got to be doing it.”

In March, on publishing its ‘Appetite for action’ report, the company called on businesses to commit to a 50% reduction in food waste by 2030 and for the government to build on recommendations within the national food strategy by commissioning a dedicated strategy for tackling food waste. PPN 06/21 – the procurement policy note that takes account of carbon reduction plans in those tendering for government contracts – should also be extended to require suppliers to report on their food waste specifically.

Away from food waste Haley is complimentary of one of his most important clients. “I have to say the UK government is really leading on [net-zero],” he explains. “They really have made it very, very clear that if you want to do business in the public sector space you have to have a very clear plan and roadmap to get to net-zero and if you don't have it, don't expect to do business with them.”

This is debatable. The requirement (PPN 06/21) for suppliers bidding for government contracts worth above £5m a year to have committed to the government’s target of net-zero by 2050 and to have published a carbon reduction plan was welcome, but what’s not been widely reported is that the plans only have to cover five of the 15 scope 3 emissions categories in the greenhouse gas protocol. This can leave a huge chunk of emissions unaccounted for in the reduction plans.

Carbon confusion

For Sodexo, the five categories – business travel, employee commuting, waste generated in operations, upstream transportation and distribution, and downstream transportation and distribution – account for only 65,068tCO2e. Indeed, Sodexo’s total footprint in the carbon reduction plan required by PPN06/21 represents only around 7% of its total emissions. The government’s thinking was to include data that businesses would have to hand though the requirements could well evolve.

If the bar is raised Sodexo is ready: it has worked with WWF to set targets within its own net-zero plan that encompass another four key categories – purchased goods and services, fuel and energy related activities, use of sold products, and end of life treatment of sold products – adding more than one million (1,078,096) tonnes of GHGs to its baseline footprint. Other categories not relevant to the business, like capital goods and upstream leased assets, have been omitted.

With all this in mind it’s easy to see how net-zero claims and carbon targets can become muddled and confusing. Sodexo is one of those keen on a level playing field. “Not all net-zero commitments are created equal,” noted Claire Atkins Morris, Sodexo UK&I director of responsibility in a video last year. Her appointment, as well as that of Simon Mussett, head of environmental sustainability, are noted in the company’s reduction plan. Haley has been keen to stress the years of work his team put into producing targets that show ambition and will stand up to scrutiny.  “I honestly don’t think the industry needs any more pressure because it’s very clear what we need to do,” he says.

That pressure and scrutiny keeps coming, and from all sides: from campaigners, customers, investors and politicians. Haley encourages it. Do the contract caterers get a smoother ride than the big high street brands? Perhaps, but that may well be testament to the fact that “our industry moves pretty quickly”, he says. This sector “does what it needs to do in response to changing environmental demands or societal demands. I honestly believe we do our best,” he adds, though it is “never perfect”.

He is honest when it comes to the emission reductions in place: a 90% reduction in absolute emissions is possible but 100% is not (SBTi allows for companies with heavy reliance on agriculture to target 80%). The focus on reduction rather than offsetting is welcome, although the company has committed to be carbon neutral in its own operations by 2025. The level of offsetting – or ‘neutralising’ as Sodexo, and others, now often refer to it – is unclear but likely to be no more than a few hundred tonnes. “We are not looking at big offsetting programmes,” says Haley, but “certain things are just not within our control”.

There is a new electric vehicle policy and 98% of electricity was procured from renewable sources in 2020/2021. Globally the group has committed to 100% renewable electricity by 2025 after joining the Climate Group’s RE100 initiative last year. Energy savings opportunity scheme audits will be conducted across the estate, most likely with even more urgency given recent events.

Just do it

Haley spoke to Footprint back in January when energy prices were rising fast; since then they have kept on climbing. The war in Ukraine has only made it more important to focus on net-zero, Haley said in an email last week: “Following the data and the science to ensure we make the right impact is as crucial as it has ever been.”

The pandemic has also proved what can be done when industry works together.  “A lot of the things we’ve had to do to respond to covid are accelerators for net-zero,” says Haley, picking out the use of data and technology in particular. The traditional ways the market has been set have been broken to a good degree, he explains. “When we had no choice, we just did it.” 

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment

Footprint News

Subscribe to Footprint News