Embedding Sustainability in Food Services

by Pratima Arapakota, MBA '13 (7/19/12)

Pratima Arapakota, MBA '13

Exploring Sodexo’s approach to making sustainability a core business strategy. 

Companies pursuing embedded sustainability go beyond traditional approaches of CSR or philanthropy – they include considerations about sustainability within the very core of their business model.[1] While organizations that take on externally focused CSR initiatives should certainly to be lauded for their efforts, companies with an embedded sustainability approach are often able to create more value for their brand.

After learning about approaches to sustainability during Johnson’s SGE immersion last semester, I was curious to see corporate sustainability at work during my summer internship. I am spending ten weeks at Sodexo, one the world’s largest food services and facilities management companies. Based at the company’s headquarters in Gaithersburg, Maryland, I am appreciating the insight my internship is providing me about how a large company embeds sustainability into its business model. 

In 2011, Sodexo launched a promotion to encourage consumers to choose vegetarian options on Mondays. Reducing meat consumption (and increasing fruit and vegetable consumption) has important health and wellness benefits for North American consumers. It also has serious environmental benefits: meat production is one of our largest sources of carbon emissions.

The Meatless Mondays initiative has gained significant traction at Sodexo sites across campuses, hospitals, and corporations in the United States. My project this summer involves making recommendations regarding how to position Meatless Mondays as a strategic initiative for wide scale global rollout. While my project can be viewed through the lens of sustainability, it is really at the crux of sustainability, strategy, operations, and marketing. Meatless Mondays is intrinsically linked to the way the company aims to position itself as an industry leader. In 2009, Sodexo launched the Better Tomorrow plan, a blueprint outlining fourteen commitments aimed at promoting health and wellness, committing to local communities, and protecting the environment.

Working at a food service company is unique, as management at individual sites drives the business. My first few weeks involved interviewing site managers to understand how Meatless Mondays has been promoted and received by consumers. Has the initiative truly shifted consumer behavior? What are the financial impacts? These conversations have allowed me to better understand how Sodexo’s sustainability initiatives have been presented and received at the front line.
Dave Willard, National Executive Chef at Sodexo Health Care Services, discusses Sodexo's healthy food options.

I also interact extensively with managers from several divisions at Sodexo’s global headquarters. Meatless Mondays will have important implications for supply chain, recipe development, strategy, and marketing. While Meatless Mondays stems from Sodexo’s office of sustainability, a global rollout of the initiative will impact many aspects of the company’s operations. In designing my recommendations, I need to capture as many of these potential considerations as possible.

It has been fascinating to learn how different divisions of the company collaborate to put a sustainability strategy into practice. It has also been interesting to interact closely with clients – including hospitals, corporations, and universities – that view Sodexo’s sustainability initiatives as key to their own internal wellness and environmental targets.  Although taking efforts to embed sustainability may require an organization to undergo some internal transformations, it could have far reaching effects in creating value for its customers.

In a few weeks, I will be presenting my recommendations regarding Meatless Mondays to managers at the office of sustainability and producing a report of my findings. I am fortunate to be able to draw significantly from the skills I gained during my first year at Johnson. My experiences in the SGE immersion practicum and Professor Nate Peck’s challenging Management Cases and Problem-Solving Process have provided me with the tools to frame and tackle difficult business problems, both within and outside the realm of sustainability. Additionally, tools from Strategy, Marketing, Finance, and Financial Modeling allow me to deconstruct and evaluate how a sustainability initiative can create value for an organization.

Creating a case for sustainability can be a nebulous process, but I have found that it is not so different from any other challenging business problem. Ultimately, using a collaborative approach and identifying the right tools can lead to rewarding results.

[1] Chris Laszlo and Nadya Zhexembayeva, Embedded Sustainability: The Next Big Competitive Advantage (Stanford Business Books, 2011).