Behind the news headlines: Sodexo’s carbon commitment

THE GROUP’S plan to slash emissions by 1.7m tonnes is a huge commitment but one that should bring rich rewards. David Burrows investigates.

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Sodexo has announced plans to cut carbon emissions 34% by 2020. Published on World Environment Day in June, the commitment attracted a fair bit of media attention. However, much of it underplayed not only the homework that went into deciding on that target, but also the challenges that lie ahead in meeting it.


It was a “huge data exercise”, says the group’s vice-president for sustainable development, Neil Barrett, who has worked closely with WWF to model the group’s overall emissions. About 5,000 sites, 10,000 suppliers and 14 countries were involved in a five-year footprinting exercise that started in 2010 as part of its corporate responsibility roadmap, Better Tomorrow.


Once all the data was collected it was fed into a model built by WWF, and out came a total carbon emissions figure of 5m tonnes for 2010/11. This was taken as the baseline; then work started on calculating how much could be slashed from that in a decade.


It’s hard – perhaps even unfair – to compare the target set with other companies in the sector, but given that Sodexo doesn’t yet know how it will remove those 1.7m tonnes it’s probably fair to say that it’s a stretching one. Barrett says: “I’d say it’s a big challenge, because it’s a global figure and the level of maturity to act varies considerably” from country to country and site to site.


Eco-pioneer and founder of the carpet company Interface Ray Anderson has said: “A good target should take your breath away.” Some will always argue that the cost of undertaking such an exercise can have the same effect. Barrett won’t confirm the bill so far, or how much the project will save. However, he feels the company now has a “goldmine” of knowledge, data and experience to help it “laser focus” on where the big impacts are.


Unsurprisingly, the majority of Sodexo’s emissions are up and down the value chain (the scope 3, or indirect emissions due to the activities of an organisation). “The direct emissions that we have in our operations is very small” at 1.5%, Barrett explains, “so our activity is focused on the indirect emissions.”


Energy efficiency interventions and the use of renewable energy will be priorities – both will also reduce the company’s exposure to rising energy costs. With 33,000 sites across the world, rolling out programmes everywhere isn’t always easy. However, the benefit is when very small-scale interventions are scaled up. Barrett cites the example of the Endocube, a technology that is helping to reduce energy consumption in refrigeration units by “12 to 25%”.


Another example is in food waste – the third priority area: “Measuring, reporting, tracking [and then cutting] food waste can produce carbon savings of anything up to 10%,” Barrett says.


Energy efficiency, renewables and waste might be the current focus, but Barrett has 1.7m tonnes of savings to find. Does that mean he will need to look at more controversial opportunities? Will he need to consider menus with less meat, for example? He can’t say, but in the UK Sodexo is working with WWF in an attempt to come up with a series of Livewell sustainable meals.


There are undoubtedly challenges ahead. But the programme should save the business millions in energy and waste. It could also help future-proof it against further environmental regulation on greenhouse gases.


Barrett is based in Paris where governments will meet this year to thrash out an international deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sodexo is the latest in a growing number of businesses that are tackling emissions head on while politicians procrastinate. These are the firms, as New Scientist put it recently, that have concluded “climate change will hit them hard”. Cutting 1.7m tonnes of carbon from a global business won’t be easy, but Sodexo believes it will be worth it.