How to Make Progress on Collaboration for Sustainability

25 Jan 2013Frances Buckingham

Collaboration for sustainability: Nike is working with its competitors to develop a systems change programme to eliminate hazardous chemicals from supply chains.

As the Guardian’s Jo Confino wrote at the close of the Rio+20 Conference in June 2012, “the most often used phrases in the many meetings I attended [were] the need to create ‘coalitions of the willing’ and a recognition that ‘all issues are inter-connected’ and cannot be viewed in silos.”

Collaboration is widely acknowledged as vital if we are to address global challenges at the scale and speed we need, but the current rhetoric often fails to acknowledge how hard it is to get meaningful initiatives off the ground. Building and maintaining relationships with any partner is difficult, let alone a competitor who fights for your market share. The line between collaboration and collusion is not always bright, and concerns over privacy and intellectual property rights can challenge even the most committed collaborators.

If we are to guide companies towards greater success, we need to better understand the barriers and roadblocks that prevent collaboration from starting or scaling, and the transferable lessons learned from efforts that get it just right.

SustainAbility and GlobeScan recently surveyed nearly 800 sustainability professionals globally, from business, government, NGO and academia, to understand the future prospects and potential pitfalls of collaborating for a sustainable future. Three key themes emerged.

1. Don’t give up on government

Survey respondents may be pessimistic about national governments’ willingness and ability to make substantive progress on sustainability issues, but their overwhelming belief is that networked collaborations have the best chance of success when governments are involved.

The Global Food Safety Partnership, an initiative of the World Bank, is a collaboration that is driven by the increasing globalisation of food supply, where any food safety issue can quickly become a shared problem. Companies have an acute interest in improving safety standards – both because of public health concerns and lost opportunities in global production – but only with the convening power of national governments and multilateral institutions such as the World Bank can they manifest that interest into actual initiatives.

2. Keep it focused and make it systemic

Our survey respondents believe that the most effective collaborations will be those that focus on a single issue, rather than a broad set of topics.

We have seen success to date in two areas when a single issue has been targeted. The first is in NGO-company partnerships (eg Coca-Cola-WWF on water stewardship; Marks & Spencer-Oxfam on clothes recycling), which are usually targeted towards the specific needs of the business concerned. The second is in the area of eco-labels and certifications (eg Fairtrade, Forest Stewardship Council), where multiple stakeholders come together but where their level of engagement has remained largely transactional.

Survey respondents see these types of collaboration as the most likely to increase over the next five years. But although they may win the day, they are unlikely to win the decade ahead: the greatest potential for change lies in initiatives that are both focused in nature and systemic in scope.

Starbucks cup recycling is one such example. For an issue that requires both behaviour change and a change in recycling infrastructure, the company’s starting point was to convene all the players in the system. Government officials, suppliers, manufacturers, retail and beverage businesses, recyclers, competitors, conservation groups and academics were brought together to develop an approach that worked for Starbucks as well as the food service sector as a whole. The work that Nike is doing with its competitors to develop a systems change programme to eliminate hazardous chemicals from supply chains is another good example.

3. Know when to collaborate

Public policy advocacy and consumer engagement on sustainability topics are seen as having the most upside when addressed through collaboration. However, those surveyed recognise that collaboration is not always the answer, indicating that competition is the best approach when it comes to companies developing a more sustainable business model and/or products and services. Sustainability professionals, it seems, still have some faith in the power of the market to drive change and spur sustainable innovation.

The careful balance between collaboration and competition is personified in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, an industry-wide alliance of apparel, footwear brands, retailers, suppliers and NGOs. The coalition is working to develop an index that measures the environmental performance of apparel products. With a shared measuring tape, each company can tailor its sustainable products to fit their own business model. As one brand in the coalition said at Sustainable Brands in London recently, “we need [a] common language before we can be competitive”.

4. The challenge ahead

The idea that traditional adversaries can realise greater benefit by upholding common environmental and social standards, rather than by competing on them, seems to have come of age. If our 800 sustainability professionals are to be believed, company-led collaborations may really start to move the dial if they focus on a single systemic problem, actively engage the public sector, and seek to learn from and build on what has worked before.

To download the full results of the GlobeScan/SustainAbility survey see here.

This article was coauthored with SustainAbility Associate, Michael Reading, and originally appeared on the Guardian Sustainable Business website.

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