From Business to Social Leadership on Food Waste | Brunswick Group

From Business to Social Leadership on Food Waste

A behind-the-scenes look at developing a powerful leadership campaign across the global food system, by Lucy Parker and Jon Miller, founding Partners of Brunswick’s Business & Society offer.

When new store openings are greeted with street protests from local communities, you know you’ve got a reputational issue. That was the situation facing Tesco when we started working with them in 2012: The company had grown into one of the world’s biggest food retailers, and yet was criticized for misusing its heft—trampling over local independent retailers, bullying suppliers and farmers, and generally using its scale to squeeze more profits from customers.

Our advice was: If the source of people’s concern stems from the sheer size of the company, we need to show that this scale can be used positively. It’s a common story: As a company grows, so do its impacts. Tesco’s brand slogan, “Every Little Helps,” was ringing hollow, and so we suggested an accompanying corporate mission: “Scale For Good”—a commitment to use the company’s size as a positive force.

We looked for a dramatic way that Tesco could convincingly use its Scale For Good—a big global challenge this big global company could take on. Our “issue mapping” exercise identified a major problem that had not yet seriously caught public attention, and one that Tesco was perfectly placed to tackle: food waste. 

It was an exciting moment. We realized Tesco had the opportunity to become the leader in the fight against global food waste. We knew it was only a matter of time before it became a hot topic, and that Tesco had a chance for leadership in a literal sense: It could help to put the issue on the agenda, and be the first major company to seriously take it on.

Tesco’s leadership embraced it. Food waste is a systemic challenge and the company was one of the three largest players in the global food system. Only by working with actors along the entire value chain could any progress be made—and Tesco had the scale and reach to do this. And since food waste wasn’t an issue people were talking about yet, taking bold action would grab people’s attention—and enable the company to be a catalyst to action.

Tesco’s food waste campaign has blossomed into one of the great social value programs in the corporate world. The issue has since become a mainstream public concern and Tesco is a recognized leader. Dave Lewis, CEO from 2014 to 2020, went on to become chair of the global task force for delivering the UN Sustainable Development Goal on food waste.

“It was a breakthrough moment, for the business and the industry.”

Particularly striking to us is that, while society’s expectations have clearly intensified since the campaign began in 2012, the steps on the journey from business leadership to social leadership remain the same:

Start within the business. Step one for any business is focusing on the issue internally. That’s what Tesco did. Already strong at managing in-store food waste, the company leaders knew they could do even better. The company collected an enormous amount of data to pinpoint where the waste was showing up. That informed innovations regarding how Tesco processed, packaged and promoted their food. As employees saw how seriously the company was taking this issue, they became more serious themselves—it became a genuine source of pride internally and employees took ownership of the initiative in their own communities.

Go beyond the business. Tesco may be a huge company but it’s still only a sliver of the global food system. Improving its operational performance was an important first step, but leading on the issue systemically required going beyond the business and working across its value chain—from “farm to fork.” It set about engaging and partnering with farmers, suppliers, and customers to map the waste and reduce it.

Advocate for change. Even the most well-crafted campaigns flounder without committed leadership from the very top. Tesco’s executives took the issue of food waste out into the public arena. They did more than just describe what Tesco had done; they called for others in their industry to follow their lead and for suppliers to publish their waste data.

Make a bold first move. In 2013 Tesco became the first supermarket to publish its own food waste data. It established a new level of transparency and provided the baseline for improvement. It was a breakthrough moment, for the business and the industry. The World Wildlife Fund wrote that other retailers should follow Tesco’s lead and take food waste more seriously. For Tesco’s leadership, it was an unusual experience—people were reacting positively about the company.

A year later, Dave Lewis joined the company as CEO, and he took the efforts on food waste—as a leader, and as a business—even further. In our 2020 interview with Lewis, his call to action at the global level echoed the message we’d helped Tesco deliver in 2013: To drive real change, companies and governments need to publish their food waste data.

This campaign embodies Brunswick’s long-held belief that there’s only one way out of a reputational hole—lead. This is about much more than mitigating risk or getting off the back foot—it’s about making a genuine impact on a tough challenge. That requires more than tightening performance within your own business; it demands dealing with the systemic nature of the challenges. If you take on a societal issue with this sort of spirit, you transform a reputational risk into a leadership platform.

That was the essence of our campaign with Tesco, and it’s what we still do now: help companies find new ways to apply their scale, resources and expertise to demonstrate they are creating financial value hand-in-hand with social value.


Read more on Dave Lewis and how he lead the fight against global food waste while CEO of Tesco here.

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