From managers who have improved workplace culture to LGBTQ+ role models, we shine a light on those increasing visibility and inclusivity in the fmcg industry
“It’s more important than ever that corporates and food organisations stand with LGBT community groups,” declares Ted Lavis Coward.
Now global partnerships manager at Stonewall, Lavis Coward has advised some of the biggest suppliers in fmcg on LGBTQ+ inclusion. And it’s a tough time to do the job.
“The global landscape is changing very quickly, and corporate funding for [civil society organisations] and Prides is hard to come by because of the divisive nature of LGBT equality in 2023,” they say. “It’s quite scary.”
Against a backdrop of ‘culture wars’ and prejudice, Lavis Coward and the nine others on this list are helping the food and drink industry make strides in increasing visibility and inclusivity. And there’s evidence such action is working.
The BRC’s Diversity and Inclusion in UK Retail report, published in June, found 64% of retail businesses could identify at least one senior leader from the LGBTQ+ community. That’s versus 47% in 2022 and 27% in 2021.
The BRC also found workforces are becoming more diverse. According to its survey, 8.2% identify as bisexual, gay or lesbian and other – up from 7.3% last year.
As the BRC points out, however, there is uncertainty around the figures. Response rates for sexuality questions are lower than those for other parts of the diversity report.
This, in itself, is a sign of why work around LGBTQ+ inclusion is so important – as are the BRC’s findings that LGBTQ+ workers gave the most negative answers on feelings of belonging and fair treatment.
The leaders profiled here (in alphabetical order) are doing amazing work and changing lives, but, as many of them point out, the industry as a whole still has a way to go.
Claire Ashton (she/her)
Packaging development manager, KP Snacks
When Claire Ashton’s daughter came out as trans six years ago, Claire had little experience interacting with the trans community. In fact, she barely had any concept of what ‘transgender’ meant until she and her daughter sat down to talk.
Since then, after an emotional journey of discovery and education, she has become one of the loudest trans allies both inside and outside the workplace.
She will fight prejudice wherever she goes, she tells The Grocer. As a packaging development manager for KP Snacks at its site in Pontefract, where it produces Butterkist, she became part of the company’s inclusion and diversity programme and has even gone as far as meeting with her local MP to pass on her knowledge of trans issues.
“I became a mini activist, I suppose,” she says. “I used my community hero day to go and speak at an event run by a charity that had given us a tremendous amount of support when my daughter first came out and she was in a very, very dark place.”
KP Snacks was recognised by the FDF as an example of best practice for LGBTQ+ inclusion. And Claire says she has received nothing but support from managers, who have backed her efforts to put a human face on the trans experience. It has led to providing a listening ear to colleagues dealing with their own issues, as well as calling out those who might be less accepting or looking to politicise the issue.
Keith Black (he/him)
Director of diversity, equity and inclusion, Sainsbury’s
Keith Black knows retail. Having started out at Woolworths and WH Smith, he has spent the past 15 years at Sainsbury’s in various roles. These have included head of buying and category director roles in its frozen, fuel and packaged grocery divisions.
A year ago, he embarked on a complete change of direction to become Sainsbury’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, spearheading the retailer’s work to become truly inclusive.
He was a founding member and one-time co-chair of the LGBTQ+ Proud at Sainsbury’s network, and sits as chair of the steering committee in GroceryAid’s D&I in Grocery group, leading 91 members.
He is more than a figurehead in the group’s activities. He takes every opportunity to represent the community he feels part of as a gay man. Keith spoke about these issues in the recent D&I in Grocery podcast: ‘Growing up gay and why inclusion matters’.
Amie Burke (she/her)
Inclusivity programme manager, IGD
Wherever her career has taken her, Amie has been vocal about representation for the LGBTQ+ community. She spent 15 years working in the agriculture industry, with AB Agri and AHDB, finding few queer voices in the industry along the way.
“I want to ensure that people don’t face the barriers that we faced,” she says. “If you think about even 10 years ago, I would never even see a role model that looked like me.”
So, when a new role came up at IGD came up as its first inclusivity programme manager, she found the progression from primary production into grocery pretty normal. As well as helping IGD navigate issues on diversity internally, she works with the IGD member companies to provide guidance and offers them the opportunity to take a spot in its reverse mentorship programme, in which upper management are paired with someone with a minority characteristic they’d like to learn more about for a series of discussions.
“If you talk to the CEOs and the MDs, they can actually implement the change”
“If you talk to the CEOs and the MDs, they can actually implement the change,” she says. “They can learn what it’s like to have those barriers, to feel left out and not feel included and how to take those learnings and put them into action into the workplace.”
The reverse mentorship programme has been running for 18 months , with 170 participants to date. And training just one person at an organisation can filter through to the rest of its workforce, Amie says.
Claudia Carvell (they/them)
Inclusion lead, Co-op
Claudia Carvell is a self-described equality, inclusion and diversity purist, and has dedicated their career to diversity. After years working for an LGBTQ+ non-profit, they made the move to Co-op based on its track record of leading the way on queer issues.
“I do this for people, I do it for communities, and I do it for social justice,” Claudia says. “That’s what I’m motivated by, so I felt like there was a possibility that Co-op and I would align - and we did.”
Six months after joining the Co-op in 2020, the role of the chair of the Co-op’s LGBTQ+ network Respect came up, which they took on and relaunched. Under their leadership, the network ran Pride events and panels, leading to visibility days for trans and non-binary people.
“I remember somebody reaching out to me and saying this is the first time I have been in a workplace where someone has acknowledged non-binary identities at all. And it makes me really proud, and it also makes me feel like I belong here.”
Joanna Dring (she/her)
Head of media, Heineken
As well as being head of media for Heineken, Joanna Dring leads its HOP (Heineken Open & Proud) employee group, which acts as a sounding board for company culture and for external marketing comms on all issues related to the LGBTQ+ community.
HOP is one of five employee groups established by the brand in the past four years in a bid to enhance inclusivity in the workplace.
Joanna was instrumental in bringing the Heineken brand to Pride in the UK, after many years as a fixture in the Amsterdam parade.
And for Pride month in June, she was the lead behind a series of videos demystifying the LGBTQ+ community on topics from pronouns to living with HIV. The ‘Looking for a Straight Answer’ series aimed to establish a safe space where colleagues could freely ask questions and gain knowledge to become confident allies. Initiatives like the videos helped educate employees about LGBTQ+ terminology and addressed various topics, including living with HIV/AIDS.
Henry Gosling (he/him)
Diversity & inclusion manager, Tesco
Henry Gosling has been a longtime fixture at Tesco in roles from cashier to technician. After 19 years in a variety of positions, he’s now based at head office in Welwyn Garden City and is apassionate member of the supermarket’s D&I team.
No day is the same, he says.
“I’ve gone from a conversation around pronouns, to how can we put sanitary products into the male toilets, to how does a trans man go on maternity leave when the government tells you only a woman can?”
Of all of these, one of the proudest moments for Henry has been ensuring Tesco’s uniform is gender neutral. Long gone are the pink shirts for women that used to be seen on the shop floor.
“I’ve gone from talks around pronouns to how we can put sanitary products into the male toilets”
The D&I role goes beyond LGBTQ+ issues and has seen Henry creating Tesco’s one-stop shop to learn about diverse characteristics, be it dealing with the menopause, or being intersex, or Buddhism.
“One of the things that drives me is seeing the impact I’m having,” he says. “I can really see the return on what I’m doing and I can say I helped this person. But I couldn’t do any of it without the amazing team around me.”
Henry is also part of Tesco’s LGBTQ+ network, and counts riding Tesco’s Pride float alongside Dave Lewis as a career highlight.
Ted Lavis Coward (they/them)
Global partnerships manager, Stonewall
Ted has been at Stonewall for four years, and until earlier this year was a client manager for businesses in the food and drink sector including M&S, Sainsbury’s, Kellogg’s, Pernod Ricard, Mondelez, Mars, Kellogg’s and Coca-Cola. As an advisor on LGBTQ+ inclusion and advocacy, they supported network chairs from global organisations, helping them advocate for change internally. They collaborated with talent acquisition and HR teams to attract and retain LGBTQ+ staff by ensuring inclusive job adverts and addressing recruitment barriers.
“The global LGBT landscape is changing very quickly”
In addition to policy review and implementation of inclusion measures, they say the importance of gathering robust data on diversity and monitoring progress cannot be understated. Consider how much data employers have about their employees, Lavis Coward says. How hard would it be to look into whether LGBTQ+ staff members are leaving more quickly than their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts?
As well as providing advice, Stonewall runs an annual workplace equality index to hold businesses accountable.
“When I took over this portfolio, there were only two organisations in our top 100 from my sector,” says Lavis Coward. “This year there were six, which is kind of huge considering the retail, the food sector were hit really hard by the pandemic.
“I work with D&I teams, network chairs, members of HR, senior leaders, but they were all getting redeployed onto the shop floor.
“So for this inclusion work, which isn’t often considered a priority, to keep happening and to see this success was really fulfilling.”
Beyond rankings and data, Ted is passionate about encouraging the businesses they work with to put their heads above the parapet for the cause, and advising them on how best to do it safely. They also champion the introduction of transitioning at work guidance and support the development of gender-neutral facilities for staff members.
Cyril Leopoldo (he/him)
GB commercial sustainability executive, Britvic
Cyril Leopoldo’s story reflects the challenges faced by many LGBTQ+ individuals when reconciling their sexual orientation with cultural or religious backgrounds. Growing up in a strict Catholic family from the Philippines, he moved to the UK in his school years and first came out as a gay man to friends before telling his family, whom he says struggle to accept it to this day.
But he has found further support in colleagues, including those at Britvic and its BProud Network, of which Cyril has become a co-chair. He uses his own experience to help others and to speak out against discrimination.
“In terms of my experience at Britvic, it’s been very inclusive.”
His career at Britvic began in HR and learning & development, and though he’s now on the sustainability team he uses his HR background to filter messages out to the company at large. This has included a takeover of Britvic staff home screens featuring educational books on the LGBTQ+ community.
The company’s BProud network also acts as a consultancy with Britvic’s marketing department, resulting in a collaboration with Sainsbury’s for Pride month, in which 15p from the sale of each Robinsons Creations bottle goes to an LGBTQ+ youth homelessness charity.
Cyril describes himself as quiet and somewhat introverted, though has pushed himself to become a voice for LGBTQ+ education and allyship at work, using his platform to create an environment where colleagues feel safe to be themselves.
Melissa Sterling (she/her)
Global wellness & belonging manager, Holland & Barrett
A Sainsbury’s alum, Melissa Sterling is part of the team building the foundations of Holland & Barrett’s belonging programme, starting with a job retailers excel at: collecting data. In this instance, the retailer is discovering the make-up of its employees rather than its customers.
It is also introducing colleague networks for a range of characteristics from ethnicity through to neurodiversity, sexuality and gender identity.
“With our mental health first aiders, we are putting them through diversity and inclusion training,” she says. “So when people ring up and want to have a conversation, it could be about anything. And they feel confident that they know at least a good amount in different areas of this space.”
And it’s not just colleagues Melissa is passionate about seeing supported by Holland & Barrett.
“After the NHS, Holland & Barrett are the one of the top places and destinations people come to for advice, because everybody on our shop floor is qualified to advise. With that in mind we’re thinking about how can we better serve underrepresented communities? For example, we sell lots of men’s minerals and supplements – in the future, could we think about passing on knowledge for a person that might be transitioning?”
Serving the community at large is not simple because there isn’t just one community, she says. “We talk about LGBTQ+ as an acronym, but there’s so many niches within that. So what does it mean to be a black lesbian, or a disabled trans person, for example? We don’t talk about that enough at the moment.”
Matthew Watson (he/him)
Inclusion & development manager, Greencore
Greencore is on a mission to improve its diversity and inclusion across the board - from age, gender, race, ethnicity and relgion, says Matthew Watson.
“Back in 2021, it was the first time ever as an organisation that we officially recognised Pride and gave colleagues a platform to speak loud and proud on,” he says.
After positive feedback from colleagues, the company leaned in harder, putting together some written resources and case studies.
The next step was an internal podcast, with guests from the business talking about their lived experiences as queer, non-binary, and other minority characteristics in a bid to improve awareness. Greencore’s biggest focus is on intersectionality, he says.
“Now that we’ve got that bit of better understanding and awareness, our aim is getting some formal policies and procedures in place to support different colleagues.”