Pret’s CEO on integrating sustainability and helping the homeless

Clive Schlee, CEO, Pret - February, 2015

Pret a Manger has found success in the tough fast-food market by focusing on fresh food and natural ingredients. The company publicly states it doesn’t believe in greenwashing, but just how far do its sustainable credentials go?

CEO Clive Schlee explains that Pret’s sustainability priority is providing good jobs and helping the homeless. The company is also sourcing more and more food ethically. And while his green goal is zero landfill within the next two years he admits reducing energy consumption remains a challenge when customers demand more hot food.

What are your most important sustainability measures right now?

Right from the beginning, the two founders realised that a sense of purpose was very important to success. Because we make our food fresh every day, we started giving away food to the homeless at the end of each day. Now we have eight to 10 vans going around London, picking up food in 10 to 15 shops each and taking it to hostels. And food for the homeless has remained a competitive advantage to this day for the staff. They come from Spain or Colombia or Poland, and we need do all we can to show them that they’re part of a bigger thing than just collecting their hourly pay. So, for us sustainability is not an add-on thing.

But in terms of the environment, what is Pret doing?

There are five big areas that we measure our sustainability on, and the environment is one of them. But the most important area to us is a positive contribution to society. We spend well over £1m of our own money on the homeless runs and distributing cheques to homeless hostels. We fund that with products where we donate up to a quarter of the sale price.

About three years ago, we decided to help the homeless get back into society and set up an apprenticeship scheme here at Pret, because jobs are what the homeless crave the most. Of course there are some challenges involved, but one in every two Pret shops has had a homeless team member. Actually, in the process they cease to be homeless and become normal team members.

The second area is natural food. Our food is always fresh, we use natural ingredients, and we reduce unnecessary salt and fat. The third is ethical sourcing of food, which is a big thing for us. We’ve slowly been climbing the ethical sourcing ladder. This Christmas we’ll offer free-range turkey for the first time.

The fourth area is waste. Of course, as a fast-food business waste is always a challenge. You really have to understand what kind of food customers are eating at what time of the day in order to reduce waste. We give unsold sandwiches to the homeless, but sandwiches that are badly made or ingredients that have gone past their shelf-life go to composting, which is a big thing for us. 95% of all our waste doesn’t go to landfills

Four of Pret’s five big focus areas are the homeless, youth unemployment, natural food and waste. What about the fifth?

It’s about resources we consume, and as a fast-growing business this is the most difficult area for us. Customers are demanding more hot food and more space to sit down, so the shops are getting bigger. We don’t say we’re going to reduce our overall energy consumption, because with an annual growth rate of 15%, increasing energy use by, say 5% is a heroic effort. What we’re doing is measuring and reporting everything, and then we’ll try to work out where we can reduce it.

What are your other challenges within the next couple of years?

Moving to a living wage is a major step in our contribution to society. Moving further up the animal welfare ladder is another important step. Increasingly customers are showing a desire for healthier eating. We have to get it exactly right, but we’re already seeing that the amount of vegetarian food that’s eaten is increasing steadily. Our top-selling salad is Green and Grains, which would never have made it into the top three salads five years ago.

Being more sustainable is often costly. Is greater sustainability a losing proposition for Pret?

No. Consumer research shows that what fast food customers value is cleanliness, convenience, the taste of the food and the quality of the service. Very soon after that comes, particularly among female customers, the ethical perception of the company. When I talk to people about Pret, the first thing they mention is the service, and very soon after that it will be, “I know you do good things for the homeless”, or “I know you recycle”. In a world where consumers have so much choice, focusing hard on these issues gives us a point of difference.

When you’re trying to be more sustainable, how do you get customers to go along?

You’ve always got to lead the customers carefully, and you can’t make the move too fast. Getting customers to recycle properly takes a lot of skill in how you design the recycling bins, how you make sure the area doesn’t get too crowded, and so on. When it comes to lighting, we now have a special reduced light in our shops at night-time. In the old days, our stores were lit up around the clock. But if you turn off the light altogether, let’s say in the winter between 4pm and 6am, it would freak the customers out. So, you have to get the customers to understand what you’re doing and get to grips with it. You have to remember that you can’t win every single battle.

Every company has a sustainability report, but how can the average consumer really tell the difference between companies that call themselves sustainable.

I think you can depend on the customers to know what’s right. What we try to do is just to be honest with the customers. It’s a trust situation. If they don’t trust us, they won’t come. I’m happy that the marketplace makes its decision, because it will encourage better behaviour by the companies.

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