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Using CPD to become a truly sustainable entity

27 August 2020: Olam International has committed wholeheartedly to sustainable practices. CPD and ongoing learning have been vital tools in making that happen.

Olam International is a large food and agri-business, providing ingredients to organisations worldwide. Their sector has been under scrutiny for its sustainable credentials in recent years; according to the OECD, around 17% of global emissions come directly from agricultural activity, with a further 7-14% through land-use changes, which contributes to deforestation.

As an organisation, Olam has made sustainability a key pillar of its company values, infiltrating every decision and activity. To maintain that commitment and further its sustainability goals, a commitment to ongoing learning was essential. 

“Our focus in terms of CPD in the areas of sustainability and ethical issues is to in a way ‘connect the dots’ for our people,” says Olam’s vice president for Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability (CR&S) Chris Brown. “Demonstrating the business case for sustainability and other ethical issues is a crucial aspect. Our people are busy, so they need to see that the time they put into CPD is relevant to what they do day-to-day, benefits the customers they deal with, and links to our purpose of ‘Re-imagining Agriculture and Food Systems’. Once they do – that’s when they really engage and pay attention.”

The sustainable setup

Olam’s learning and development (L&D) team runs the CPD programme, while various functions, business units and country teams provide input and learnings from the ground. Brown’s team are the knowledge-holders on sustainability and ethics.

Learning and CPD involve different levels of experts and enabling technology. Business unit-specific CR&S teams, for example, can shape and tap into iQuest and company webinars. Brown says it is vital that the team structures the sessions to be as engaging as possible – it must feel like a compelling conversation. 

“One important step we have taken towards this is to establish ‘Material Area Champions’ – one champion for each of the 10 Material Areas at the heart of our business – to drive engagement across Olam,” Brown explains. “One good example is a recent deforestation webinar, which really engaged people on the reality of our challenges, what we’re doing, as well as why what we do is good for business, people and the planet. That last point is crucial because our people have to understand why an initiative is relevant to them and to the business rather than just a “nice to do” and will create real positive change.”

Tangible impacts on the wider world

Brown says that it’s important that L&D responds to both real-world issues and what is important to Olam’s people. “They can see that what they do within the company has a tangible impact on our customers and the wider world.”

The company had to make practical changes in response to COVID-19, with an accelerated shift towards virtual training – something Olam had already started to implement. As of last year, essential policies such as the Olam Supplier Code were delivered through virtual training. 

“Online formats also allow us to reach a wider group of people,” says Brown. “We are now expanding on the success of these efforts to roll out other online training, for example at our manufacturing facilities and on plantations, because we know we are going to have to work virtually for the foreseeable future.”

It is not enough to have standalone modules on sustainability or ethics training for employees, Brown explains. Employees must be sufficiently aware of all of the issues so that they can engage more effectively with customers. The aforementioned Olam Supplier Code, for example, helps stuff to identify supply chain issues. 

Olam undertakes materiality assessments at a ‘landscape level’ on an ongoing basis to identify the most important issues for the organisation. For example, it could be monitoring greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or seeking a third-party assessment for labour issues. After that, teams on the ground are expected to address any identified challenges, and the organisation determines how to best measure those challenges and improve its approach.

The company has kicked off a major project with its business units on GHG mitigation training. “Together, we are creating plans and strategies to reduce the carbon footprint of our portfolio,” Brown says. “We engaged consultants and experts and then arranged webinars on key issues and challenges. This is a much more practical and holistic approach, rather than just a series of training engagements.”

Green finance

Olam is also pursuing green financing as part of the broader remit to re-imagine what the role of finance can do in creating value for all.

At the outset, the L&D team looked at how to engage the finance team in environmental, social and governance issues, so they could account for it. “There are a lot of pressures and challenges on our people, so we wanted to make clear that our innovations are relevant to them. We did this by setting up a task force that brought in experts from across functions – finance, treasury, CR&S included,” says Brown.

The treasury team was already working on green financing and ensuring that employees and investors understand what that means. The finance team was working on ‘capitals’ accounting; putting a dollar value to both the financial and non-financial aspects of Olam’s operations.

This culminated in the creation of the F4S (Finance for Sustainability) function and what eventually became Olams’ Integrated Impact Statement (IIS). “Through IIS, we can measure and improve on our non-financial operational impact. We have already piloted successful case studies with our Cocoa, Dairy and Palm businesses.”

For Olam, this is one example of the true value of its ongoing learning programme and commitment to genuinely sustainable business.

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