Sarah Ottaway, Sustainability and Social Value Lead
We are proud to partner with Social Enterprise UK on the Social Value 2032 programme, which we joined to raise awareness of the benefits social value can create and ultimately to encourage wider adoption of social value in procurement by both central and local government.
Social value is an approach that considers the holistic impact of a product or service, looking not only at value for money but also at social and environmental benefits and consequences. We believe that wider adoption of social value can unlock billions of pounds’ worth of value for individuals and communities, and help to support an evolution of our economy that considers both people and planet.
In Social Value 2032: Creating a Social Value Economy, we set out, along with fellow partners PwC, Siemens and Shaw Trust, a collective vision for social value over the coming decade. We include a case study about our work with Greater Manchester Combined Authority to develop a reuse hub for the city. The purpose of this was to bring reuse to Greater Manchester on a scale not seen before, through a hub for upcyling, repair and distribution that feeds a network of shops for pre-loved items. Together these provide work opportunities and prevent hundreds of thousands of items from being thrown away, conserving resources and cutting carbon emissions – all the while helping people in Manchester with the cost of living crisis and enabling them to access items that don’t cost the earth. This is the kind of exciting development that can happen through partnership between local authorities and service providers with a shared ambition for social value.
Local and national government, as key investors in public services, have an important role to play in unlocking the benefits of social value. In the environmental services sector, we have seen a trend towards social value in procurement, with increased importance placed on outcomes for society and the environment in the competitive tender process by forward-looking authorities. Social and environmental issues typically used to account for around 2% of the weighting for supplier decisions. Now, in a growing number of Invitations To Tender, we see that figure at 10 or 15%. This puts an onus on all of us to respond to our customers’ changing needs to meet the growing public appetite for social value in the services they use.
But this is only one way of thinking about social value. Social value is much more than a public sector issue, and should run far deeper within businesses than simply adapting to keep up with demand. At SUEZ, our adoption of a ‘triple bottom line’ approach – where we strive to consider and balance people, planet and profit throughout our business – has driven improvements that go beyond whether we can meet the brief for a given project.
Our journey towards social value began about 13 years ago. At the time, the environmental services industry was dominated by landfill, with far less emphasis on reuse and recycling than today. We recognised this and were determined to take a leading role in addressing the wider impacts of the services we provide. Partly this stemmed from the personal convictions of our leadership team, who were committed to looking for ways to improve our business practices. Early forays into social value took a project-based approach, which revealed the potential impact we could have, but flagged to us the need to be more joined up and think about how we could make changes across the business.
Our CEO, John Scanlon, took up his post in November 2019 and, having worked across many parts of the business, had seen first-hand how we could optimise the benefits arising from our work delivering essential services to local communities the length and breadth of the country, whilst remaining a profitable enterprise. He led efforts to develop a more strategic approach, putting together a team including leads for environment and sustainable development, and sustainability and social value. The resulting strategy, which is best summarised as our ‘triple bottom line’, is now embedded in all parts of the business and continues to evolve how we operate.
The approach, while governed from the top of the organisation, is owned by everyone in the business. We have built social value into all our work. Our bonus structure requires senior colleagues to deliver on social and environmental success measures, and staff are closely involved with implementing the strategy in the most appropriate ways for their part of the business by developing local initiatives.
We operate across about 280 sites and each of these has a sustainability champion, who is tasked with thinking about how we can make operational changes at ground level to benefit the environment and our local communities. This is guided by our ten Sustainability Principles, developed using staff feedback on where they see the greatest opportunities to make a difference at a local level.
Examples include one site where our staff repurposed a wind turbine to generate energy for the site, removed single use plastic cups and helped a local school with their biodiversity projects. We’ve found that these small changes add up to a big overall impact – for our environmental and social impact, and our bottom line.
Social value is increasingly an area of interest for new recruits joining the business. We are much more frequently asked by candidates about what we are doing in this area. We recognise the importance to employee engagement of helping our people to live up to their personal values through the work they do.
Our social value story points to a virtuous cycle. In building our strategy to maximise the social and environmental benefits of our work, we are helping to meet the demands of our employees and customers. This in turn makes us a better partner and strengthens our business.
For more information about the Social Value 2032 programme click here.