Clarasys meets Claire Pearson, Business Development Director at sustainable drinks brand Belu to discuss the value of being purpose-led.
An interview with values-led social enterprise Belu – PODCAST
An interview with values-led social enterprise Belu – PODCAST
Clarasys meets Claire Pearson, Business Development Director at sustainable drinks brand Belu to discuss the value of being purpose-led.
Meet the author
Values-led sustainable drinks business Belu is a social enterprise in the UK that exists to change the way the world sees water, putting people and the environment first by investing in initiatives that benefit our planet, giving all net profit to WaterAid. Our sustainability lead, Sam Maguire, chats to Belu’s Business Development Director, Claire Pearson, about being a values-led organisation.
In the tenth episode of ‘Clarasys presents: Simply Sustainability’, Sam asks Claire all about Belu and how they are inspiring others to do business better offering advice to other organisations.
Listen here or read on for an edited transcript.
Sam Maguire: Welcome to our Simply sustainability podcast presented by Clarasys. In this series, we look at what can sometimes be the intimidating topic of sustainability and break it down into digestible bite-size chunks to help you on your way to a more sustainable future.
In today’s podcast, I’m absolutely delighted to be talking to Belu, a drinks business that believes there’s a better way to do business.
So let’s start with some introductions. So I’m Sam Maguire, the sustainability lead at Clarasys, and we’ve got Claire Pearson here, the Business Development Director at Belu. Claire, could you tell us who you are and what you do at Belu in a little bit more detail?
Claire Pearson: Thanks, Sam for having me in. So, Yeah, I’m responsible for business development and strategic partnerships at Belu, been in the business for six years, actually this year marks my sixth anniversary in the business, but have known Belu for a very, very long time, since 2010 when I worked at Water Aid, who happened to be our social impact partner, and the partnership with Belu was started.
Sam Maguire: Fantastic. And what was it that attracted you to working with Belu?
Claire Pearson: We’re a values-led business. We put the environment first and what we do is invest all of our net profits into WaterAid. So, purpose is at the very heart of our business and for me, I had the opportunity to very much still support WaterAid, who I absolutely adored working for, but after seven years I was looking for a new challenge and was very fortunate that the opportunity at Belu came up six years ago.
Sam Maguire: Fantastic. And a really key word that you mentioned there Claire is purpose, and that’s something that we’re going to be digging into more in this podcast. I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about Belu’s mission and purpose if that’s okay?
What is Belu’s mission and purpose?
Claire Pearson: Sure. I mean, Belu was actually founded 20 years ago. We only just realised that the other day when we were writing our impact report. And actually when you think about it, 20 years ago the word sustainability wasn’t really used that much in business, if at all. Purpose-led business, you know, that term didn’t really exist. But we were founded by a chap called Reed Paget with the aim of doing business better and, for him, that was bringing environmentally improved bottled water proposition to market.
Sam Maguire: Okay,
Claire Pearson: So we’ve actually been in the purpose-led game for a long, long time.
Sam Maguire: And that the, I guess the start when BELU was kinda founded, was it always the intent to be kinda purpose-led or was it more just around, okay, we’re going to deliver water in a better way? Or was the intent to always kind make sure that the way you treat employees, the way you treat customers, et cetera, was going to be different?
Claire Pearson: Yeah, it was to basically demonstrate that there’s a better way to do business. That we could exist for more than just money. So our purpose is to exist not just for shareholder value or not for shareholder value because we actually give all of our net profits away, but actually to deliver for people and planet at the same time as hopefully inspiring some other businesses to do business better along the way.
Sam Maguire: Fantastic. I noticed you mentioned there how you treat your profits and how you kind of deal with them. What are the other ways that Belu is, at the moment, living its mission and purpose?
Claire Pearson: Well, for us it’s about the why we exist, not just the product. So for example, showing to others. We’re getting a lot of requests lately to speak, and I think that’s because we’ve been in this game quite a long time.
So yesterday, for example, one of our co-CEOs, Charlotte, was at a Heineken Smart Dispense Summit up in Birmingham on a panel about sustainable swaps and how to be more sustainable in business. So I think now that there’s more interest from the general business world about doing purpose-led business, that’s how we are now truly inspiring others to do business better.
But how we live our values is through, every single thing we do as a business, sustainability and doing business better has always been at the very core of our business. It’s not an add-on. So, you know, I often get asked who’s our head of sustainability. Well, effectively it’s everybody. We don’t have one.
What challenges has Belu faced in being values-led?
Sam Maguire: Brilliant. That’s fantastic. And I guess what I wanted to ask next was around, it mustn’t always be kind of plain sailing being purpose-led or sustainable must mean that sometimes there’s a bit of challenge to it, there’s a bit of complexity that you’ve got to navigate. Can you give me some examples of where you see that happen?
Claire Pearson: Yeah, sure. I mean, at Belu we’re a sustainable drinks business, right? We’re also a social enterprise, which is an important thing to add. So meaning that we exist for our social environmental mission. As you touched on earlier, we’re supplying hospitality in corporate sectors with sustainable water and drink solutions, so filtered water dispensers, British mineral water, tonics and mixers, all with a low carbon footprint, and obviously all profits to water aid.
Particularly with the single-use formats, the challenges have been particularly since 2018, actually, just after that very famous Blue Planet episode aired which I think was an incredible episode and is certainly David Attenborough’s legacy in terms of making the world wake up to environmental challenges. And what that bought with it was very much educating decision makers and consumers to prevent them from being sucked into alternative formats with unintended consequences when it comes to single-use packaging. And that’s not just in water, that’s in everything.
We found since 2018 that there are a lot of businesses that choose the popular-looking option to the consumer without actually digging deeper into, is this actually the most environmentally sound thing to do? So for us at that time, and still now actually, rather than jumping into suddenly producing water in cans or cartons, we took a step back and really took time to understand our options. I mean, at the time we were environmentally best in class in terms of our packaging anyway. So for us, It’s about making decisions based on doing the right thing for the environment, not the opportunity to, purely make money while consumers are in turmoil. And we’ve actually stuck to that decision to counter not follow. Even to this day, four years on, we’re asked, Oh, what, can you do water and cans? And for us it just makes no sense. We make everything here in the UK so it makes no sense to make can water, for example, where the aluminium may have come from China and US. For us, we’ve been measuring our carbon footprint since it became the cool thing to do since 2010, actually achieving 69% reduction in carbon intensity of our business.
So going back to your point about values, we needed to sit by our values in that respect, and that’s what we did.
How do you demonstrate the impact of and thinking behind the choices you make as a brand?
Sam Maguire: That’s quite a complex message to deliver to customers, right? In terms of they’ve got a certain perception around what is sustainable. Lots of us are finding that with different products how do you actually communicate the impact and the choices that you’ve made? How do you do that at BELU? How do you kind of show the deep thinking that you’ve done?
Claire Pearson: I mean, every year we produce an impact report. If you go onto our website, You’ll see numerous years’ worth of impact reports and actually, the one that was launched on Earth Day in April, has several pages talking about single-use formats, different formats, and the pros and cons. Ultimately, all materials have an impact at some stage in their life. So the main thing that we are trying to do with businesses is take them on the steps to sustainable water service. So if you are selling Italian imported bottled water, switch to Belu mineral water if you want to sell mineral water.
But what we’re ultimately trying to get people to do is refill and reuse. And since 2015, really with the growing interest of it from particularly our restaurant customers saying, ‘oh, what about this filtration thing I’ve heard about?’ We launched the filtration business and that’s our number one growth priority right now. But yeah, we’re very much an open book. Our impact reports it or we publish our accounts even though we don’t have to. And certainly, for us, we’ve even gone one step further last year and actually, written into our articles of association that the reason we exist as a business, our purpose, is for the achievement of global goals six, 12 and 13. So that’s clean water sanitation for all, responsible consumption, production, and climate action.
Sam Maguire: So you’ve moved past, kind of just trying to maximise shareholder value as a business and organisation, and actually, establish your purpose within it, which a lot of people are doing through the b corporate framework, but actually you’ve taken a different approach to do it, which is really interesting.
Claire Pearson: Yeah, I mean, just from the very start, we don’t have a shareholder who gets any of our shareholder profits apart from effectively, I guess it’s WaterAid. So as long as there is a global water crisis and one in 10 people in the world don’t have clean water to drink, and I think that, you know, we’re speaking today on a really, really hot day in London, and suddenly everyone starts thinking about water because it’s hot, they’re thirsty. But actually, the sad reality is, one in 10 people worldwide don’t have access to clean water to drink. And that’s very much why we exist in terms of the social impacts of our business and making positive change happen with our profits.
Sam Maguire: You mentioned the impact that Blue Planet had on customers and people were really, really starting to wake up to this as an issue, probably helped by hot and wetter summers coming from climate crisis. But do you find that there are particular customers who have woken up more to and have really engaged with the purpose-led nature of Belu?
Have you noticed higher engagement recently with customers?
Yeah, I mean we try to find, I know the values term keeps coming back and back in this conversation, but you know, just to touch on, we are business to business brand. Yes, you can buy some of our products on our website direct to consumer, but we are business to business ultimately, and we find that the most successful ways to do business and people to do business with are those that do have values and actually want to do the right thing. There are a growing number of those, which of course is great for business. And after a tough 2020 and 2021, we had our most successful year ever in 2019. Clearly covid when restaurants shutdown effectively, our order book closes. 2022 is seeing definitely an increase in people wanting to do better and I term them ‘boom arounds’ actually – people, businesses coming back that we might have spoken to about three, four years ago, where now sustainability, environment, doing the right things, whether that be socially or environmentally and/or, is now on the agenda of their board and know that they need to do better.
We find that they need to be led from the top really in terms of, this value’s-led and wanting-to-do-the-right-thing approach. We tend to see through people that aren’t properly values-led and for us as a business, and it might sound odd coming from a director of business development responsible for sales, but we would actually walk away from business if we don’t feel like people are the right fit for us. Because ultimately someone might be a huge profile restaurant group, but if they’re trying to squeeze us of everything margin-wise, then essentially there’s an environmental impact there, which actually isn’t delivering any value for people living without clean water with WaterAid.
So a lot of other businesses might take a very low margin to be listed with that big restaurant group, for example, but for us, it makes no sense to do so. So that’s when we will just say, ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and ‘you know where we are should you wanna come and work with us again in the future’.
Got it. You, I guess you need to be very careful that your brand has not been used as part of a purpose or greenwashing story, right? Where people are not actually fully committed to wholesale change, but they want to get a fantastic brand that is committed in, to paper over some of their cracks.
On that kinda purpose washing point, you mentioned earlier the very transparent reporting that you guys do, but are there any other ways that you make sure that you are credible and that you are really living by the values that you set out and ensuring that you’re not purpose washing in any way?
How to ensure you are credible and not purpose-washing?
Claire Pearson: Sure. I mean, our modus operandi is environmental social impact. You know, we, we walk the talk from our governments right through to our delivery and you know, as I mentioned earlier about updating our articles of association. That is to really demonstrate our commitment to doing things differently in terms of, you know, our alignment to the UN sustainable development goals and our primary social object being the achievement of carrying out our business in relation to those.
We also added an extra clause in our articles last year to ensure that we carry out business in accordance with the statement of responsible business principles too.
Sam Maguire: You’ve mentioned quite a lot in terms of the governance around the organisation and how that helps you to make sure that you are not purpose-washing. Just wanted to dig into how do you make sure that every single team member at the organisation is also living the values. How do you make sure that you’re bringing in the right people and giving them what they need to be a contributor to a purpose-led organisation?
How do you get all team members to live the values of the organisation?
Claire Pearson: I mean, when a job’s advertised at Belu, we do tend to, you know, we appeal to people that have the right values and wanna do the right thing. You know, if you are CEO of an organisation of a business, you can earn a lot more working in a purely, in a business that’s purely driven by shareholder value, potentially than working at Belu, perhaps. But it’s, yeah, really about finding people with the right work ethic, the right values that, you know, what do they also do in their spare time as well. How do they want to make a positive impact on the planet? And then also when we onboard them, it’s about making sure that they understand our DNA and they’re aligned to DNA. And we have a set of core values which have been around for a number of years, from, you know, ethical, transparent, not afraid to be different, doing what’s good for customers and partners and so on. So really inducting them into how we actually actively live those values out in the actions we take through business decisions and also how we act with each other and also out there with our customers and partners.
Sam Maguire: Fantastic. That’s super interesting. What I’d like to ask you about is that, you’re obviously doing amazing things as a purpose-led organisation, but what advice would you give to others who want to go down a similar route to set something up that is going to be purpose and values-led?
What advice would you give to others wanting to become values-led?
Claire Pearson: I’d say, first of all, speak to others doing it already. You know, like I said earlier, Belu’s very much an open book and we want to help others who also wanna do business for good. So come and speak to the likes of us. Come and speak to any other purpose-led brand that you admire, because you’ll often find that those people are very willing to share the successes and also, you know, let’s face it, some of the challenges along the way. So definitely speak to others who are already doing it to gain insights and advice. I think decide from the outset ‘what is your purpose? Why do you exist? How does it align to what you are doing with regards to the why, and then how you are measuring impact?’ I mean, if you are at the start of starting a purpose-led organisation, you’ve got the great opportunity rather than someone that’s, you know, 15 years in and is deciding to perhaps switch things around. But you’ve got a great opportunity to get your impact baseline established, for example, and really ensuring that whatever your purpose is, that it’s underpinning everything you are doing from your ownership, your legal framework, governments so that you are operating in a way that’s actually making real social and or environmental change possible.
Sam Maguire: You mentioned there talking to other organisations. Is there anyone that you would like to give a shout-out to that you go, Wow, they are awesome, they’re doing some really good stuff, that you take inspiration from?
Which purposeful organisations inspire you and Belu?
Claire Pearson: I’m doing a lot more work this year talking to actually other social enterprise suppliers that we have the same target market because I think that as a collective, we’re stronger with each other rather than apart. So this year, very much focusing on engaging with other businesses that are also social enterprises and other suppliers to the hospitality industry workplaces, to ask each other advice. So if I could shout out some of those that’s guys like Toast Ale. You may have heard of them. I mean, half the time, businesses like ours and toast, people know the brand and they like it. They don’t even realize that we’re a social enterprise purpose-led business until they start talking to us. And I think that’s great. It shows that we’re a quality brand delivering quality products. People are admiring us and then once they get to know more, they’re like, Wow, okay, this is a no-brainer, we should definitely be working with you.
So Toast ale, they are a fantastic beer business and social enterprise. They make their beer from bread that would otherwise go to waste and they also invest some of their profits into, I think it’s food waste charities from memory. Also, Nemi teas, so that is a tea company that you know, can supply offices, shops, et cetera. And Nemi teas was founded by a chap called Pranav and they basically train refugees in London into hospitality jobs basically. And also they’ve just opened up recently a coffee shop called Trampoline. It’s clearly like springboard effect there, in Angel. So that’s where they’re training up some of the refugees that they work with.
Sam Maguire: Two fantastic organisations there. I am very much a beer drinker, so I’ll be drinking some toast, I’m sure not too long. Unfortunately not a coffee drinker, so I might not be stopping at Angel. But, two fantastic organisations.
I want to ask you a little bit more about water, and it’s such a massive topic as we look at the impact of the climate crisis and other environmental challenges. What are the main water issues that you see the world facing, both now and in the future?
What main water issues is the world facing?
Claire Pearson: Big question, Sam. I mean, we don’t exist without water, right? Yeah. Whether you are business people, communities, it’s essential to very much life itself. And climate change is a huge, huge challenge. I mean, certainly since I worked at Water Aid. There has been a growing focus in the work that they’re doing on climate change resilience.
The United Nations estimates that one in four children will live in extremely high water-stressed areas by 2040, which is huge. Threatening their health and futures. And as we know, clean water, sanitation, and decent hygiene are fundamental to helping people live prosperous lives. And there’s no point in us investing in health and education without the water situation being sorted.
If you look at the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the 17 goals that make those up, water is fundamental right? At the very base of most of those being able to be achieved and a lot of the work that, for example, water aid’s doing is on supporting communities on climate resilient solutions basically. Helping, you know, if you think of places like Pakistan and Bangladesh, huge climate change issues there, water-related climate change issues there. So very much helping those communities cope with that from a water supply perspective.
Sam Maguire: Absolutely. I guess to flip it in on its head for more of a solution space, what should all organisations be considering around water stewardship?
What should organisations be considering around water stewardship?
Claire Pearson: I think fully understanding the business benefits of providing access to water sanitation hygiene. So in short, that’s WASH. Actually, Wateraid is doing a really interesting piece of work around the business case for supporting wash, for investing in water, sanitation, and hygiene. You know, there’s increasing evidence to support both the direct and indirect benefits of effective wash management in the workplace and also just in terms of investing in WASH. So I would say to any businesses that are particularly aligning themselves to the global goals, make sure that you are supporting Global Goal six. Cause as I mentioned, it is fundamental to achieving all of those STGs. And if you are a business that’s interested in doing that, then I am certainly happy to make introductions to WaterAid if that’s something of interest.
Sam Maguire: Fantastic, Thanks, Claire. I want to go back to BELU and your experience as an employee there.
So you mentioned a little bit at the start about why you were attracted to work for Belu. What has the impact of the organisation being purpose-led had on you? While you’ve been there as an active employee.
What’s it like to be an employee at a values-led organisation?
Claire Pearson: It certainly made me realize that I will never, ever work for a business that purely exists for shareholder value. I mean, I came from an NGO background and for me, transferring over to Belu was the opportunity to apply the skills that I had at the time, which were mainly focused on partnerships primarily over to a purpose-led business. Where I could actually make change through doing business.
And I love very much that. We are an amazing business that just happens to be doing good. It’s only the team that can really make a difference. At Belu, we’re a small team with 13 people. When I joined, we were six and have fluctuated over the years between six and 13. We’re just about to go quite big for us and employ another nine people. That’s because we’re very much investing in the future and that future being the growth of filtration, both here in the UK, but also in other country territories. So for example, we launched in Hong Kong back last year in 2021. And because we are a small team, accountability is key. We really need to be accountable as individuals and as a team, and certainly for me in the way that I do business, the way that our ethics inform every decision I make, and I touched on some of the decisions earlier in terms of a business development perspective or, you know, certainly seeking out the right partners that we want to work with.
Constantly thinking is investing this money in an activity going to have a great outcome, ultimately leading to a better life for people living without water and sanitation or is it going to help us do better by the environment rather than a return that’s quite hard to measure? So, you know, it’s good don’t get me wrong. We work hard and there are tough days, but ultimately it’s a great feeling knowing that all our hard work is actually helping to make a difference in the world.
Sam Maguire: Absolutely. I think probably, one, makes me very happy, but it certainly gives you confidence that as you scale, because the values are so deep-rooted that that’s not going to be lost. It may take a little bit more, frameworks or processes, but actually, you’ve got the culture there, which is the most important piece that means that you will undoubtedly be purpose-led as you scale, and people will continue to live those values.
Claire, listen, thank you so much for joining us. We’ve covered all about Belu and how you embed your purpose-led values across the organisation. We talked a bit about the water challenge, and most importantly, we got to know you a little bit better, so I just want to say a massive thank you.
Claire Pearson: Thanks, Sam.
Sam Maguire: Brilliant. Cheers.
Claire Pearson: Cheers. Bye.
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