Driven by a vision to become one of the world’s most responsible retailers, Woolworths has been on the Good Business Journey since 2007, a journey that involves employees, customers, suppliers, partners and everyone in its value chain. This comprehensive and strategic commitment to responsible business practice aims to meaningfully contribute to the health and wellbeing of people, the inclusive growth of the economy, empowerment of communities, and the sustainability of the environment.
The establishment of the Woolworths Trust in 2003, as well as the company’s alignment of its developmental efforts with national and global development goals have further entrenched Woolworths’ commitment to be an active participant in society, with emphasis on getting involved in initiatives that create a lasting impact through meaningful partnerships. While there are various initiatives throughout the business that broadly aim to address poverty and inequality, Woolworths focuses on two key issues: contributing to food security – aligned with the second UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of ‘zero hunger’ – and ensuring the provision of quality education – aligned with the fourth SDG.
Key lessons that have emerged from Woolworths’ responsible business journey
The understanding that responsible business is a journey, rather than a destination, is clearly articulated in the name of the strategy – the Good Business Journey – and embraced by the business at large. Woolworths realises that it is on a journey of learning and discovery whilst meaningfully contributing in an arena that has a multitude of complexities, and has the following lessons in development to share:
i. Making a meaningful impact
Woolworths has sustainability and socioeconomic performance functions and forums, including the Woolworths Trust, that carefully and critically assess each developmental strategy and action plan for authenticity and appropriate reflection of intent and, most importantly, for having the right impact.
ii. Pilot projects
Once the company has fully assessed its strategic response to a social need, developmental initiatives are then meticulously piloted before a decision is taken about whether or not to roll them out.
iii. Leverage business expertise for social advancement
Woolworths partnered with UNICEF South Africa, in support of the Department of Basic Education, to improve the health, education and nutritional outcomes of learners in quintile one to three primary schools. This is achieved by addressing the capacity gaps of volunteer food handlers and educating learners and broader school communities about effective water, sanitation and hygiene practices. The company committed R4 million over three years to the rollout of a pilot programme to improve nutrition for about 50 000 children at 50 under-resourced Gauteng-based schools
that participate in the National School Nutrition Programme. Drawing from the company’s dietician expertise, through this pilot programme community members who volunteer as food handlers will be trained to safely and hygienically prepare balanced meals for schoolchildren. Specialist employee involvement in different initiatives realises Woolworths’ intent to be active corporate citizens instead of just funders.
iv. Encourage all hands on deck
Woolworths encourages its employees to get their hands dirty – literally. Employees can get involved in various company-run volunteerism initiatives such as the EduPlant programme in which more than 200 employees volunteer in permaculture food gardens at schools across the country – digging, mulching, composting and planting alongside learners. Woolworths also expects its suppliers to share and contribute to its vision of sustainable development.
v. Beyond the Loyalty Swipe – Sustained Impact in SA
More than one million customers support Woolworths’ award- winning MySchool MyVillage MyPlanet loyalty programme. The programme supports 8 600 schools and non-profit organisations that meet the criteria and, in its 21-year existence, has raised over R500 million. The Thuso Fund was created by MySchool to support under-resourced schools and charities across South Africa. The Fund invests in programmes that accelerate the systemic change in lower quintile schools, but selects partners on the basis that they show good leadership and resourcefulness. Thuso supports GROW with Educare, which aims to open 21 early childhood development centres using a social franchise model, as well as the school leadership forum programme which is building the leadership capacity of school principals and teachers in more than 200 schools. Ten teaching bursaries are supporting deserving individuals studying to become teachers and a further 18 are envisaged in the next two years.
vi. Collaboration with industry
Woolworths partners with FoodForward SA, a non-profit organisation that recovers edible surplus food at various stages of the food chain and distributes it to communities in need across the country. Several other food retailers also partner with FoodForward SA, highlighting the collective responsibility to address food insecurity in the country.
vii. Unlock the power of partnerships
Robust partnerships with non-profit organisations, based on shared vision, common goals and expectations, are crucial for the successful rollout of development projects. Careful consideration is given to partner selection, taking brand alignment, as well as geographic reach into account. As Katy Hayes, Corporate Affairs Programme Manager and Executive Assistant at Woolworths, explains, “When both parties understand what the partnership will bring, both sets of strengths can be fully utilised.” Partnerships are also imperative for project scalability.
Living Soils Community Learning Farm
Woolworths partnered with one of its suppliers, Spier Wine Farm, and the AgroEcology Academy of the Sustainability Institute to launch the Living Soils Community Learning Farm, in the Stellenbosch Winelands. This three-year pilot project aims to establish a learning farm that will demonstrate ecologically restorative methods to grow nutrient-rich foods, to improve community food security. The project includes the training and development of young farmers to address local youth unemployment. The partners share a vision of a viable model of community-based food security and the sustainable development of local livelihoods that, if successful, could be replicated across the country.
Woolworths has provided R4.4 million funding over the three-year period and will bring to the project the sustainable farming expertise that has shaped the group’s Farming for the Future programme. Kobus Pienaar, technical manager of Farming for the Future, brings his know-how to the partnership: coaching and training interns in sustainable farming and sharing valuable insights from years of experience in sustainable farming. Spier provides land and farming equipment; the neighbouring farmer manages the farm; and the AgroEcology Academy of the Sustainability Institute will host and drive the project with a dedicated project manager.
The Living Soils Farm exemplifies Woolworths’ hands-on approach: employees participated alongside the initiative’s partners in the first planting in August 2019, and will be present for the first harvest in November 2019.
Katy Hayes | Corporate Affairs Programme Manager & Executive Assistant Woolworths Corporate Affairs