Sustainable to the core: How Danone is changing the world from inside out

Published on : 5/17/21
  • “Let us conduct our businesses with both the heart and the head,” said Antoine Riboud, the then CEO of Danone, in 1972

    In his groundbreaking speech, which was inspired by the French social protest movement, Riboud was committing Danone to pursuing social progress alongside commercial success.

    Nearly 50 years later, that principle still guides the multinational food company, says Danone’s general secretary Mathias Vicherat.

    “It has not always been natural to mix sustainability ambitions and business priorities, but that is part of Danone.”

    To manage that mix, Vicherat is responsible for integrating – rather than leading – the company’s sustainability work. “The idea is to have our sustainability strategy at the core of the production process,” he explains. “If sustainability only belongs to the corporate, it’s not enough – it has to be inside the business and its brands.”

    So, Danone has chosen not to have sustainability leadership roles at the top of the business; it has no director of corporate and social responsibility (CSR), for example. Instead, it sets ambitious sustainability targets, makes it clear that all employees are responsible for achieving these goals, and holds itself to account on its progress toward them. 

    Lofty ambitions drive tangible outcomes 

    One of those goals is to achieve 100% B Corp certification by 2025. That would make Danone the first multinational business to achieve this gold standard of social and environmental performance, public transparency and legal accountability across its entire business – rather than only in individual subsidiaries. 

    Another of its initiatives is implementing the legal framework of ‘Entreprise à Mission’. Danone was the first listed company to embrace this model, which entered into French law in 2019 to define companies whose social and environmental objectives are aligned with their purposes.

    But these lofty ambitions have to lead to tangible outcomes, so are they? “We were among the six most efficient companies in regard to carbon emissions around the world in 2020 and 2021 for the Carbon Disclosure Project,” says Vicherat. “And we are doing that at Scope 3 level [the most far-reaching assessment of an organization’s carbon impact], which integrates our entire value chain.”

    There is also the Danone Ecosystem Fund, which supports inclusive business projects worldwide, and Danone Communities, which invests in social businesses that help address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of eliminating hunger and improving access to clean water and sanitation. Business for Inclusive Growth (B4IG), a coalition of 40 companies committed to tackling inequalities and promoting inclusive growth, was created by the OECD and launched at the G7 Biarritz Leaders Summit in August 2019. More recently, Danone has also pledged, along with other global businesses including Sodexo, BNP Paribas, L'Oreal and many more, to support social inclusion as enterprises - and communities - emerge from the global pandemic.

    CSR provides a competitive edge

    Pursuing new ambitions and refining strategy in this way is vital. Half a century after Antoine Riboud set his twin-track course for Danone, the company’s competitors are now also focused on sustainability – and the stakes are getting higher all the time. 

    “I think the Covid crisis has accelerated the demand from consumers for companies to have a positive impact,” Vicherat says. “Edelman’s research shows that more than 80% of consumers want their favorite brands to be more active.”

    And customers are not the only stakeholders that are focusing on social value. “If you want to be attractive to new talent, work such as Entreprise à Mission is important,” says Vicherat. “In business school, students don’t think only about their wages – they also think about the purpose of the company they will join.”

    These are the imperatives that are driving Danone to build on the foundations laid in the 1970s by its former CEO, with social purpose and commercial strategy inextricably interwoven. “This is mandatory,” insists Vicherat.

    “It is a business request, it is an employee request, and it is a consumer request too. We have to do it with efficiency, but we believe this is the right model for our business.”

    Sodexo also places corporate responsibility at the heart of what we do. Better Tomorrow 2025 guides our work and orients our progress on the most important issues.

    This article is part of Sodexo’s Experience Next campaign. It is produced by Longitude, a Financial Times company, in partnership with Sodexo.

    Want to learn more about the benefits of corporate sustainability? Download our latest report

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