Sysco – a waking food sustainability giant?

In my view an overlooked area of academic study into food systems is the reach and scale of the major global foodservice giants such as Compass and Aramark. So rather belatedly I caught up with another of these giants, namely Sysco and their 2016 Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) report which the company published this summer.

Sysco, with sales of more than $50 billion (2016), describes itself as the global leader in selling, marketing, and distributing food products to restaurants, healthcare and educational facilities, hotels and other foodservice and hospitality businesses.

Sysco’s CSR report is titled “From local to global, we make a difference” and aims to describe Sysco’s approach to sustainability structured around “people, products and planet”.

But what is surprising for a global leading food company is how recently it is that Sysco has engaged in the type of sustainability reporting and issues compared to many other food and drink corporations. It was only in the autumn of 2015 that Sysco established its first CSR department with full time resources.

So not surprisingly Sysco’s CSR and sustainability activities come across as a work in progress. Despite a considerable amount of description and in places more detail, it is very hard to grasp a strategic context or future direction of travel from the many piecemeal examples presented in the report.

In fact, despite its enormous clout in global foodservice, Sysco is still in the process of developing long-term strategy including the identification and publishing of specific sustainability goals and Key Performance Indicators in many areas.

But the report does seem to herald a change and an intention to play catch-up.

Writing as part of the report, Sysco CEO Bill DeLaney situates the company’s CSR and sustainability activities at the heart of its overall new corporate strategic thinking, he says: “Sysco is currently in the midst of a three-year strategic plan that includes comprehensive goals to improve our customers’ experience, enhance Sysco associate engagement, and achieve financial objectives. At the core of this plan are key enablers, one of which is corporate social responsibility.”

Mr Delaney continues stating that Sysco’s CSR efforts will be enhanced through developing sustainability/CSR goals and key performance indicators over coming years and will provide opportunities to deepen the company’s collaboration with key suppliers and allow greater innovation and more sustainable practices throughout the supply chain.

The report content is an odd mix and at times long on description, some of it quite vague. Data is presented for some areas, but in others there are frustrating gaps, for example, in the interesting section on food waste there is no data by how much the company’s initiatives have actually reduced waste (or any future goals). But there are more analytical sections such as on Sysco’s efforts, working with the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), on improving the sustainability of its seafood supply chain.

The range of topics covered by the report is comprehensive from sustainable food sourcing, governance and ethics, to philanthropy, and employee and supplier diversity, among many others.

Despite its unevenness, what Sysco’s latest CSR report all points to is how this foodservice giant is waking to sustainability. It is a company to watch to see how it is going to embrace and integrate sustainability into its core strategy, leadership and relationships with customers and suppliers. There are different ways it might do this – from following a safe sustainability path through to using its scale to become a sustainability leader and innovator.

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