Research interests: Modern Vietnam, Technology, Development, Environment, Colonialism, Capitalism, Socialism
Sodexo and the necessary utopia: capitalist sustainability, planetary management, and the future of the world
Imagine a world where all your food was nutritious, sustainably produced, ethically sourced, prepared to the highest standards of hygiene, and reflective of local cultures and tastes. Then imagine working with a gender- and ethnic-diverse group of colleagues, in spaces that were clean and perfectly maintained, that fostered creativity and productivity, encouraged meaningful interactions with others, and empowered you to be your best. Now what if the price for this more sustainable, equitable world was allowing some of the most basic conditions of your existence – what you ate and how you worked – to be determined by a single company?
These are the sorts of worlds that the French-based multinational Sodexo seeks to create, and since its foundation in 1966 these worlds have increased steadily in extent and number. From its origins supplying institutional cafeterias it has grown to manage entire facilities, providing a complete range of services from cleaning and maintenance to concierge and security. As of 2020, it is a world leader in its market sectors, operating in 67 countries and serving more than 100 million consumers daily. With over 470,000 employees, it is the largest French-based private employer and one of the top 20 largest employers globally. And unlike other large employers like Walmart or China Post, its reach is truly global. Its consumers include English prison inmates and students at elite American universities, French toddlers and Canadian retirees, Shanghai steel workers and Bangalore programmers. It sells burgers at the Superbowl and pigeonneau aux anchois at the Michelin-starred Pré Catelan. And it is a leader in corporate environmental sustainability, gender equity, and diversity, with the capacity to effect enormous change in what we eat, how we work and live, and what the future of the planet will look like.
My project, “Sodexo and the necessary utopia” uses Sodexo to explore the history of capitalism and globalization since the 1960s and its effects on food, labor, and the environment. The project employs a mixture of historical and ethnographic methods to answer a set of important questions. How have patterns of globalization changed since the Second World War and what is the relationship to Imperialism and Colonialism? How and when did contemporary capitalism come to embrace social and environmental causes? What were the material and intellectual roots of this development? How has it evolved? What technologies underpin its realization? What are their implications for governance? What are their effects for labor and the environment? Are such capitalist utopias necessary for a sustainable, equitable future? And crucially, what is it like to inhabit the utopias that Sodexo creates?
Gerard Sasges is an historian of technology, development, and the environment, with a focus on Vietnam from 1900 to the present. His research uses non-Western histories of technology to reshape our understanding of development under capitalist and socialist regimes and its relationship to the environment and to lived experience.