Q&A with Veolia's CEO

May 17, 2017

We sat down with Veolia's CEO, Estelle Brachlianoff, and asked what it means to win Responsible Business of the Year 2016 and what businesses do in order to practice responsible business.

Who is Veolia?

Veolia is a resource recovery champion in the UK and a global environmental solutions leader. We’re ‘Resourcing the World’ by championing a deep-rooted change towards promoting the circular economy. We're innovators, committed to focusing on carbon reduction by preventing pollution, preserving natural resources, protecting biodiversity, combating climate change and raising environmental awareness.

Our business strategy is focused on manufacturing green products and energy, while helping our customers and suppliers reduce their carbon impact by investing in new infrastructure with £750 million committed over the next 5 years. We’re devoted to developing access to, preserving and replenishing resources to create environmental, financial and social value, including a fairer society with opportunities for all.

What services does Veolia provide to businesses?

From transforming ice cream by-product into green energy, recovering platinum from obsolete pharmaceuticals to future-gazing with our Imagine 2050 report, we are turning the once 'traditional' energy, waste and water management industry on its head.

Our services are integrated into one sustainable offering, covering everything from collecting recycling and delivering new materials to industry, providing low carbon and renewable heat and electricity, and managing water networks and waste water treatment.

How did it feel when Veolia were named Business in the Community’s RBOY 2016?

Being named Responsible Business of the Year has highlighted how Veolia has transformed into a genuine resource management company, which is committed to the circular economy. Winning the award also emphasised how our 14,000-strong team has made responsible thinking part of how we do business.

This is so important to our customers because at Veolia we have gone through a transformational change to address the challenges of the future. We’ve adapted our business model in order to contribute to the circular economy through closed loop solutions, prioritised the employment of disadvantaged people and reduced our carbon emissions. And to have this recognised at such a level means a lot to us.

Why is it important that Veolia has a sustainability programme?

Sustainability isn’t just a programme for us at Veolia, it is our entire business. We believe the change to the circular economy will be so dramatic that we have made a fundamental shift in our business model to take it into account.  From being simply a provider of water, waste and energy services, over 25% of our business is now circular and we anticipate 40% by 2020.

We are constantly developing innovative ways to develop access to, preserve and replenish resources and making more of what we have. In other words, it isn’t simply about emptying bins, treating waste water or heating hospitals but turning unwanted materials into green products and green energy converting sewage sludge into energy and taking a lead in combined heat and power.

What is the circular economy and why is it important for the UK economy?

The first industrial revolution was based around the use of materials and manufacturing. We’re standing on the verge of the second Industrial Revolution the planet needs. And ironically, whilst it was the sheer availability of raw materials which made the first Industrial Revolution possible, it is the fear of shortages which is starting to drive the circular revolution. After all, we are now trying to grow whilst preserving the resources we have left.

I believe we’re going through a bigger change in philosophy as when we realised the world was round. This means no longer seeing products as make, use, then throw away! We need to start thinking in circles where we create products with the knowledge that they have a second or third life. This is the circular economy.

In terms of the economy, a report from Imperial College London ‘The Circular Revolution’, which was commissioned by Veolia, investigated the benefits of the circular economy. Its findings revealed a potential £29 billion contribution to UK GDP and in excess of 175,000 jobs. For me, this is an undeniably powerful business argument that highlights how the circular economy is a highly effective business tool for growth.

Why is it important for companies to adopt a circular economy?

To an environmental or sustainability manager the circular economy makes perfect business sense. Nevertheless, to make it happen we are going to need a change of mindset which requires boardroom recognition that the Earth’s resources are finite not infinite.

So let’s look at the circular economy in turns of business need. By 2050, the world’s population will have risen by a third, from 7.2 billion to over 9.6 billion and over 70% of those people will live in cities. In pure business terms, think what that is going to mean for supply and demand! I’m talking about the cost, volatility and scarcity of natural resources, the increasing difficulty of extracting them and the reality that between 1980 and 2020 we will have doubled how much we take out of the earth. It’s clear that security of supply is one of the biggest risks to business continuity and through innovation businesses will be able to prosper. 

What actions are you taking to ensure this happens?

As mentioned, we believe the change to a circular economy will be so dramatic that we have centered our business model on it. We have set ambitious business targets and our sustainability objectives are centrally embedded in them. This means our business success is measured by the added financial, social and environmental value we generate and as a result we’ve added sustainable objectives into each person’s individual objectives and bonuses because strategically it’s important that being a responsible business becomes business as usual.

Looking back over your journey as a company, what achievement(s) are you most proud of?

Over the past few years we’ve been on an incredible journey. We launched our second Imagine 2050 report, which revealed the innovation business models needed to meet resource and waste challenges between now and 2050. We’re helping close more loops with our customers such as the new state-of-the-art glass processing facility with Knauf to manufacture energy saving insulation. Our apprenticeship scheme is going from strength to strength and we continued. And we have more events to come up and down the UK so please come and join us there.

We have a target to recruit 10% of operatives from marginalised groups and so are actively invested in enhancing the life chances for those marginalised in society, while helping to bring social value through our local operations. We do this because it’s the right thing and also because it’s critical to ensuring we attract and keep talent – now and in the future.

We firmly believe that being responsible is not just the right thing to do, it is the best thing to do – people want to buy from, work and partner with socially responsible businesses. At Veolia we have gone through transformational change to address the challenges of the future, adapting our business model in order to contribute to the circular economy through closed loop solutions, prioritising the employment of disadvantaged people and reducing our carbon emissions. As well as helping the environment, this is having a positive impact on our bottom line.

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The 2017 Responsible Business Awards Shortlist