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Compass’s net-zero captain

Carolyn Ball has the transformative task of delivering the catering giant’s pledge to become a net-zero business by 2030. She spoke with Nick Hughes.

As the crucial COP26 climate summit in Glasgow enters its final week major organisations yet to commit to a net-zero future are increasingly becoming isolated within the business community.

Compass is not among them: in May the UK & Ireland arm of the business set the pace for the foodservice sector with a commitment to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, a target that has recently been approved by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) as being in line with a 1.5°C trajectory.

In the same month, the UK’s largest foodservice operator hired former RA Group executive Carolyn Ball to deliver the ambition in the newly created role of director for delivery of net-zero.

The commitment covers Compass’s own operations (scope 1 and 2) as well as its value chain (scope 3), totalling 1.2 million tonnes CO2e. The business plans to achieve a reduction in carbon emissions of at least 55% by 2025 and at least 65% across its operations and value chain by 2030 from a 2019 baseline.

To offset the remaining emissions, in 2025 Compass will start investing in what it describes as “high quality UK-based carbon removal projects such as afforestation in rural and urban landscapes, and peatland rehabilitation”.

Subsequently, the global Compass Group business has committed to deliver net-zero by 2050 across all of its 45 countries, including a 46% reduction in absolute Scope 1 and 2 emissions and a 28% reduction in absolute Scope 3 emissions from all food and drink purchased by 2030 from a 2019 base year. It’s a noticeably more cautious commitment, reflecting the climate leadership of the UK & Ireland business within the wider Compass Group. 

So how do Ball and her colleagues plan to reach the milestone?

Total transformation

As well as driving significant reductions in its own operations, including a goal of sourcing 100% renewable electricity by 2022, Compass UK & Ireland plans to use its size and reach to help clients, employees and suppliers reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the entire value chain.

By Ball’s own admission it represents “a total transformation” of the business with progress on food, drink, packaging, waste, buildings and logistics all needed to contribute towards that net-zero goal. 

“One of the biggest things that we’ve been really keen to speak about very candidly internally, is that if we are going to achieve a target like the one we’ve set, and commit to a 2030 endgame […] then we have to examine everything, and by everything I mean the way in which we work as teams and the way in which we engage with clients.”

Compass, as Ball alludes to, cannot achieve net-zero on its own. As a contract catering business that operates across hundreds of client sites and sources thousands of ingredients and other products the vast majority of its emissions – “in excess of 90%” according to Ball – sit within its scope 3 supply chain. This means that while reducing direct emissions will take Compass some way towards its target – for instance by ensuring all fleet cars are 100% plug-in electric by May 2024 – the real gains are to be made in the way it sources products and presents them to customers.

Ball has identified menus as an area in which Compass can make the most rapid advances. “We know that for a catering operation, anywhere between 50% and 70% of the footprint is usually carried within the food itself, meaning that the menu is a massive ally for meaningful change.”

Compass has been working with consultancy South Pole to develop an in-house footprinting tool which calculates emissions associated with the embodied carbon in its menus, as well as the cooking methods employed on client sites.

Veg switch

The greatest reductions can be made by switching out high emission meat and dairy with lower emission vegetables, pulses and grains. As part of its roadmap to net-zero, Compass is targeting a 40% switch from animal to plant-based proteins by 2030, with an interim target of at least 25% by 2025.

In common with some other caterers, Compass has already started reengineering menus – and how food choices are presented to customers – to nudge people towards eating more sustainably. It recently trialled a new labelling schemeacross its workplace catering sites in partnership with the LEAP programme at the University of Oxford, which saw dishes rated for their environmental impact based on greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity, water pollution and biodiversity loss. 

Compass says it has seen positive results in relation to consumer behaviour during the pilot at its  Eurest workplace catering arm, which also saw plant-based dishes placed in more prominent positions and descriptions of dishes reviewed and renamed to make them more appealing. Ball says it’s now looking to roll out the labelling scheme across its entire business and industry sector.

The LEAP initiative speaks to Compass’s intention to focus on changing the food environment, rather than telling customers what they can and can’t choose. As Ball says: “How can we go about building in more fruit and veg in a way that doesn’t feel like you’re dictating or mandating that meat is bad?” She adds that “we just want to move towards a world where alternative proteins are no longer alternative” rather than the niche propositions they are today.

Sourcing matters

That doesn’t mean that Compass – nor any other large caterer – is going to stop serving meat and dairy altogether in 2030. Sourcing, therefore, is another key piece of the net-zero puzzle. The business has a target for 70% of the top five food categories (dairy and cheese, fruit and vegetables, pork, beef and chicken) to be sourced from regenerative agriculture by 2030, which Ball says Compass defines as farming and grazing practices that “look to reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity”.

Compass has worked with certain suppliers for many years and wants to avoid bringing in strict mandates for who it will and won’t work with in future. The focus therefore is on supporting supply chain partners to make the necessary changes to their production processes. “We have to make sure if we’re going to hit the targets, which we’re very committed to doing, that the whole supply chain comes on the same journey with us,” says Ball.  “We would much rather do it through engagement and supporting a transition, as opposed to just swapping [suppliers] in and out.”

Compass does, however, plan to rework its supplier auditing process to include key environmental performance criteria, including energy and resource efficiency, renewable energy, waste management and green logistics.

Holistic approach

Despite her job title, delivering net-zero isn’t the only ambition for Ball in her new role. “The overarching objective when we started out with all of this was just to make sure that in pursuit of a climate net-zero commitment by 2030 we were also doing so in support of a sustainable food system more broadly,” she says.

One of the things Ball says Compass wanted to be “brutally honest about” is how looking through a purely emissions lens could lead to “unintended consequences” for other sustainability indicators. It’s for this reason Compass is already looking at developing science-based targets for all aspects of nature including biodiversity, freshwater, land and ocean since “all of the work we do increasingly reveals that it’s so interconnected”.

The business also wants to work collaboratively within the wider foodservice and hospitality sector to share learnings and challenges. “I really do think that if we’re serious about this, which we all are, then one of the things we have to do more of is openly share learnings and collaborate, because otherwise it’s not really climate leadership,” says Ball.

As director for delivery, Ball is quite literally tasked with leading the shift to net-zero. If Compass can achieve it, both the business itself and the wider foodservice sector stand to benefit.