Welcome to Eat Takeaway! In this series we hear from business, brand and marketing leaders on their ambitions and challenges this year and beyond. We explore their day-to-day and what lessons they have in the fast-changing and sometimes overwhelming worlds of brand experience and delivering for customers and employees. Check-out our take-aways at the end.
In this episode, Eat Creative’s Head of Growth Robert Costelloe sits down with Simeon Cheng, Group Director of Sustainability at Vitasoy International in the Hong Kong SAR, one of the world’s leading producers of soy-based beverages. Simeon has previously held roles with transport firm MTR and sat on the Global Sustainability Standards Board of the Global Reporting Initiative, the pioneer in sustainability reporting.
Please note this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Robert Costelloe: Thank you so much for joining our series Simeon. Can you give me a snapshot of the Vitasoy business and brand today?
Simeon Cheng: It’s a company with a long history, over 80 years in fact. The company’s original purpose was to serve a community in need of affordable nutrition, so serving the community has always been part of why the company exists. We now have manufacturing facilities in the Hong Kong SAR and Mainland China, where a huge chunk of our revenues comes from. We have a tofu factory in Singapore and a joint venture in the Philippines. We also have a fully-owned subsidiary in Australia which is quite unique because it’s producing products for the mainstream market there, beyond Asian audiences. So you’re not seeing their products in Chinatown or Asian grocery stores. Their products are for general local consumers – like thicker soy milk that can be put on cereal and around a year ago they launched soy-based yogurt. Vitasoy has a big portfolio of products. The majority is still beverages, but we have tofu, and even noodles in Singapore, and we have yogurt in Australia. So we are moving more into food as well as beverage.
The company’s original purpose was to serve a community in need of affordable nutrition, so serving the community has always been part of why the company exists.
RC: You’re coming up to four years with Vitasoy. What does your day to day look like?
SC: What really attracted me to Vitasoy was their commitment to integrate sustainability into the business. I report directly to the Group CEO which is a very good thing because a lot of these ESG topics are challenging the status quo. They are asking people to rethink and reconsider how things are being done today and figure out whether we have put enough considerations into sustainability topics. I would say that the sustainability role is very much a change management role.A lot of the sustainability areas need senior management support, with both a bottom up and top down approach. We talk to different departments and help them understand why we are challenging the status quo. But for some more technical topics, such as climate change adaptation, we are being more direct and saying “This is what we need to do”. So that’s why you sometimes need that top down and bottom up combination.
Vitasoy is a listed company but it’s not of a size that makes it really difficult to drive change. So it’s a good time for a role like the one I have to come in and implement these changes as we continue to grow even bigger.
I report directly to the Group CEO which is a very good thing because a lot of these ESG topics are challenging the status quo...more technical topics, such as climate change adaptation, we are being more direct and saying “This is what we need to do”.
RC: And when Vitasoy has this substantial global presence, both from a brand perspective but also operations, what does this mean for your work?
SC: Vitasoy has a sustainability framework and under that we have set targets covering a range of areas such as the percentage of our product formula which is plant-based, sugar levels, saturated fat levels etc. We also have targets on packaging, manufacturing aspects such as water, energy, zero waste to landfill and so on. Additionally, we disclose our carbon emissions data and have work programmes around safety and communities. The framework is for the group of companies within Vitasoy, so all these targets apply to every business unit. My role is to set the direction for the whole group, but we do a lot of internal engagements, look at the numbers and the ways of working. We set targets that stretch our capabilities because there’s no point setting a target that we can beat easily, but we also want to be realistic. I have to consider all these factors and hold extensive internal discussions in the group before we go ahead and define those targets.
Everyone working towards the same purpose is hugely important because sustainability is not something that can be achieved by a single department.
RC: How do you see the approach to sustainability at Vitasoy being different to other organisations?
SC: I don’t think we are unique in this, but that particular willingness to embed sustainability in the business is powerful. The portfolio itself is a responsible one because it is largely plant-based and the company has committed the business direction to be a driver of the plant-based diet movement while also taking into account social and environmental considerations.
Over the past two years, my team has been working with the group marketing and HR teams to refresh Vitasoy’s purpose statement which now reads “To advance the world’s transformation towards a sustainable future through the amazing power of plants”. The wording itself is quite clear that we have this commitment of making a plant-based diet a business direction with sustainability right in the centre of it.
We also see a responsibility to educate our consumers as well – to be told why plant-based is important, why it’s better and why they should consider it.
RC: Have there been external factors, be it calls for greater sustainability by customers or the economic landscape for example, that have influenced these decisions and commitments by Vitasoy internally?
SC: There are a lot of factors. The different markets carry different levels among consumers of how much they care about sustainability, the environment, where we source our materials from or whether we are working with responsible suppliers. But we are seeing a trend of younger audiences asking about this more. Will they actually buy more of our product because of that is yet to be seen. Another example is reducing the amount of plastic used in our bottles. Will we sell more as a result? We don’t think so. But in this case, it’s our corporate responsibility to use less plastic. There’s a cost saving there as well in using less material, so part of it is also supported by the business case.
We see more young consumers shifting to a vegetarian or vegan diet – for some it’s just a trend, for some it’s about health, for others it’s about the environment. So a range of different reasons. It’s really up to companies like ours to bring out better plant-based products that give these customers better choices. Whether they choose our products or not depends on a lot of factors – the taste, how we market it or position it. On the other hand, we still have some products that are traditionally higher in sugar but continue to sell very well. These are the indulgent products to have once in a while. If we want to reduce consumption of those, we need to be offering attractive alternatives.
We don’t need to go to them and say “Hey, you need to change this, you need to do it this way”. Once the understanding is there, the changes will follow.
We also see a responsibility to educate our consumers as well – to be told why plant-based is important, why it’s better and why they should consider it. In the past, marketers might think that sustainability stuff isn’t marketable, but that attitude has changed rapidly. Vitasoy’s marketing team pro-actively come to us to say “Let’s work on some projects together”. I think that’s marvellous.
RC: From a talent perspective, have you seen whether Vitasoy is getting greater consideration from prospective top talent, be it because of the new purpose or the business direction that places sustainability at the heart?
SC: We don’t really have the tangible data yet to support that but I certainly think it will be. Our Group CEO told me when he hired his team, he always asks them straight up about their understanding of sustainability and how they see it as part of their work. We try very hard to hire people who understand and align with our vision and believe that sustainability needs to be ingrained in our ways of working. I think we are in a very good place that our leadership team is very much set on this.
RC: And what does success look like for you?
SC: From a corporate perspective, it’s about the targets that we have committed to which are five-year targets. Those need to be achieved by 2025 and then it will be about setting fresh targets for 2030. Another perspective is not as numerical – really it’s about how our new purpose has supported the company.
I plan on working myself out of a job. If everybody has sustainability ingrained in them, they don’t really need me.
We’ve communicated this ambition throughout the company and I’ve been to different departments to explain how their work is relevant to realising our purpose. We don’t need to go to them and say “Hey, you need to change this, you need to do it this way”. Once the understanding is there, the changes will follow. But it is an ongoing process. It won’t just automatically happen. We have to constantly ask ourselves: How do we reinforce the understanding and engagement with that purpose? How do we embed it deeper and deeper in our employees?
I hate to say this but I plan on working myself out of a job. If everybody has sustainability ingrained in them, they don’t really need me. If that happens, that will be the ultimate success.
For me personally, if I’m able to change as many people’s perspectives as possible to have sustainability as a key consideration in what they do, whether they are in Vitasoy or move to another company and apply that thinking in their professional or personal lives, then that is a big satisfaction.
The Eat Take-Away
Give sustainability a seat at the (C-Suite) table: Sustainability cannot sit with a single department, team or role. To be effective in evolving your business and brand, it needs buy in from your executive leadership. Without it, initiatives lack direction and employees will not see how sustainability programmes fit into the broader business strategy, leading to confusion and wasted use of resources.
Bring your employees on the journey: Making sustainability real and tangible means getting everyone involved, no matter their role or department. Education and a communications programme will be critical to help employees understand how their role is relevant to the sustainability evolution of your firm. This also begins the process of embedding that powerful purpose in every employee and putting your organisation on the path where sustainability becomes a self-developing programme, driven inside and out.
Set targets and have metrics: Assessing carbon emissions from Scope 1 – 3, water or product material consumption can be very difficult for many organisations depending on their size and set up. That doesn’t mean you can’t set targets and have metrics to monitor. Find the targets and metrics that work for you to make the sustainability journey real and tangible for your people – from energy consumption to office plastic usage, to food waste, to how employees get to and from work - all of these can be measured no matter what your size and provide a benchmark for reducing your emissions and impact on the environment.