"Sustainable entrepreneurship is never complete."
You're probably already aware that sustainable entrepreneurship is one of our top priorities. But what does it actually mean? From renewable energy and chain projects in the south to the work-life balance, it all comes under the heading of 'sustainable'. And how long has Colruyt Group been involved with it specifically? We asked Jef Colruyt himself about it.
Sustainable entrepreneurship is a very broad concept. How do you interpret it specifically?
Jef: "I see 'sustainable entrepreneurship' as having two meanings. The first is taking a long-term view. Not just doing things that deliver a benefit right now, but also considering the consequences for the generations to come. Entrepreneurship in a way that will be positive for the company and our employees fifty years from now. Secondly, we want to operate wherever possible with respect for people, environment and society. To show how important we think this is, it has been in our mission statement since 2007: 'Together, we create sustainable added value through value-driven craftsmanship in retail'."
When did sustainability become so important to Colruyt Group?
Jef: "We really got started with it rather by chance in the '60s, because it was the only way for us to survive. The company was in the process of transitioning from a wholesale business to a chain of individual discount shops. We wanted to be cheaper than our competitors, but we didn't have the money to do so. So, it was a matter of looking to see 'how can we make savings' (laughs). Removing half of the fluorescent lights, only using closed chest freezers, collecting our paper and cardboard ourselves … They were actually all creative ways of saving money."
"At the end of the '80s, 'sustainability' became more the focus. And then we suddenly realised that our search for the lowest prices and efficient use of goods and energy were actually 'sustainable'. We were happy to share that story. In 1990, we made an explicit commitment to the environment with the Green Line charter. Because we really wanted to give a positive vibe to the whole sustainability story. For example, some environmentally-friendly products were temporarily given a green price ticket instead of a red one. Since then, sustainability has been a real priority for us."
In other words, from necessity to commitment?
Jef: "Yes. And we want to deepen that commitment. Let me give you an example. At the end of the '90s, I was on a sailing trip along the coast and I saw a wind turbine. In those days, there were hardly any of them. And I wanted to try that as well. 'Guys, what d'you think about putting up a windmill?' Our engineers were very enthusiastic, right from the start. So we put one up in Halle, in 1999. And now we have 14 in Belgium, plus 178 turbines at sea. So, we stumbled into wind energy by accident (laughs). Then we started thinking about solar energy, sustainable construction, recycling … We have a full team working every day on technologies to reduce our CO2 emissions. This year, for example, we opened our first OKay shops without fossil fuels. And I could keep going on this theme for a very long time."
Sustainable entrepreneurship is never complete, never perfect. There's always something extra we can do. A little bit more we can add.Sustainable entrepreneurship is never complete, never perfect. There's always something extra we can do. A little bit more we can add.
So, has sustainable entrepreneurship become a passion as well?
Jef: "Absolutely. Many people within the company really want to make a difference and throw themselves into sustainable projects. You can no longer say that 'sustainable entrepreneurship' is a passing fad. It has become part of our DNA, of our identity. There is no benefit in greenwashing. It may buy companies a couple of years, but after a while they run into obstacles and good marketing is no longer enough to get around them. You have to get to grips with sustainable entrepreneurship; just philosophising about it isn't enough."
Sustainable dealings with employees; what do you mean by that?
Jef: "Above all, I want to make sure that people's head, heart and gut are on the same wavelength wherever possible. You can't calculate the return you are getting from people; if they are feeling good, then that always has a positive effect. That is why we strongly emphasise sustainable careers, and that is something that my grandfather was already interested in. He believed that a company is shaped by the people that work there. And a retail business definitely involves a lot of people. That is why he invested strongly in training for employees, from the '50s onwards. Mainly specialist training to start with, but subsequently it also increasingly included group dynamics, yoga and so on. Back then, that was still a little bit spooky (laughs). But plenty of companies offer it as well, now."
"My father read lots of management books, but he noticed that the theory often didn't work in practice. So, he started to look at what worked well for him personally: being authentic and finding your passion. And that is what we invest in: letting people discover what they are good at and what energises them."
Isn't it difficult to make the products on the shelves in shops sustainable as well?
Jef: "Yes, sometimes we do have to accept that we can't do everything – particularly abroad. There is so much that we want to get involved in, from sustainable sourcing to animal welfare. So, I want to focus on things that we can actually change, even if we can only take one step at a time. We have a direct impact on our in-house brands, so making Boni Selection or Everyday products more sustainable is a bit easier. Reducing the amount of sugar or only using certified cocoa, for example. But it doesn't really make sense to change things if the customer isn't ready for that yet. That is why we always try and find a sensible balance between research and innovation projects for the future on the one hand, and short-term overhauls on the other."Read more
How do you intend to get customers involved in this?
Jef: "Above all, we have to support and inspire our customers in their personal search for a conscious way to consume and live. I definitely don't want to start criticising them. What I do want is to give them tips; for example, creative ways to make meals with the leftovers in the fridge. Almost a third of fresh food ends up in the bin, which is a huge amount! And we also have to focus on giving accurate and clear information. Product labels are full of technical terms that nobody understands. Apps like SmartWithFood or our product finder can definitely help with that. Because customised food is the future."
Name: Jef Colruyt
Function: CEO of Colruyt Group
What do you believe in the most? In hydrogen; one of the best long-term solutions to our energy problem.
With this initiative, we contribute to the following Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.