How to drive collaborations for sustainable business

One of the biggest blocks to getting climate change reversed is the fact that billions of us are secretly hoping ‘someone else will do it’. Truth is, it’s going to take all of us.  

No single person, community, company, organisation or country is going to be able to solve climate change on their own. As the African proverb goes, ‘if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go further, go together’.

Collaboration on all levels is key but for the business sector, this can be a thorny issue. Traditionally, we’ve run our businesses on a dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest mentality where businesses aggressively compete with each other, jealously guarding their intellectual property, their brand identity, their human capital, their profit and loss figures… and more.

Shifting this inherently competitive and secretive mindset and moving towards a more collaborative way of doing business is going to take some effort. In even the most successful partnerships, things don’t always work out and there are rough patches but we are already seeing how some innovative and unexpected collaborations can bring greater prosperity for businesses as well as move the needle towards more sustainable development. For example, Oxfam partnering with Amazon on social justice, or Procter & Gamble partnering with the World Wildlife Fund to source sustainable wood and paper.

WHAT IS A SUSTAINABLE PARTNERSHIP?

“The companies that are going to survive will be those that can work in partnership…” said Paul Polman, former Unilever CEO.

So, what does a partnership in sustainability look like? Basically, it’s a ‘win-win-win’. A win for all parties as well as a win for the planet. In other words, when two or more businesses team up for mutual benefits related to sustainability goals, it’s a sustainable partnership, or a partnership for sustainability.

In the natural world, this kind of partnership is called ‘mutualism’. It’s where two species have a relationship that benefits both of them. For example, the oxpecker and the rhinoceros. The oxpecker is a bird that eats the parasites and ticks that attach to the sensitive skin of the rhino so the oxpecker gets food and the rhino gets pest control. As well, the oxpecker alerts the near-sighted rhino with a hissing warning call when a predator is near (1).

From bees pollinating flowers, to birds flying in flocks to reduce wind resistance, these cooperative relationships are the foundation of the natural world.

WIN-WIN-WIN

Over in the world of business, some unlikely sustainable partnerships are reaping big benefits for all concerned. Sometimes, it’s a corporate brand and a non-profit but it can also be entities from multiple sectors getting together to pool their resources.

For example:

  • Dutch flooring manufacturer Interface partnered with Zoological Society of London (2) to buy discarded fishing nets from poor communities for creating new yarn. This means fewer abandoned nets in the oceans, less virgin materials and a new source of income for the communities.
  • Costa Coffee has partnered with Bio Bean (3) to have their used coffee grounds into various bio-products, including (bio)plastics, cosmetics and sustainable fire logs for use in domestic wood-burning and multi-fuel stoves. 
  • Shoe-makers Allbirds and Adidas (4) have teamed up to create a performance shoe with the lowest carbon footprint on record. The companies are sharing proprietary technologies and material innovations. Called Futurecraft.Footprint, the collaborative shoe is due for release in 2021.

AWESOME ALLIANCES

As well as partnerships, another way to collaborate on sustainability is through industry alliances, which are popping up everywhere, examples include:

  • Playing For the Planet – the biggest companies in the video gaming industry, including Sony and Microsoft, have committed to harness the power of their platforms to address climate change and their industry’s impact (5).
  • The Sustainable Fibre Alliance – a global multi-stakeholder initiative with a mission to ensure the long-term viability of the cashmere sector. Members include Burberry and John Lewis (7).

HOW TO COLLABORATE

No matter what industry you’re in or what type of business you have, collaboration is a powerful and invaluable tool for inspiration, education, networking and creating shared value. Basically, there is power in numbers.

This new way of doing business is through sharing ideas, research, innovations and findings that will lift everyone higher. The success of this new attitude can be seen in the tech world with open-source software.

How can you start? Begin by networking within your sector. From business breakfast meetings to online group chats, seminars, forums, or industry events, to hosting round-table discussions with your stakeholders and other players in your industry, in person or online.

Alternatively, identify a social or environmental challenge within your business that a partnership might help you solve. For example, a waste product from your operations that could be a raw material for another industry. Once you have a potential partner, the WWF report, The Partnership Toolbox (8), recommends posing six questions in the initial phases:

  1. How do we develop a shared vision?
  2. Does this partnership need to be legally binding?
  3. What do we need to have in place to work together to grow and strengthen?
  4. How will we all know when we have come to the end of the partnership?
  5. What happens when we complete the original task?
  6. How do we monitor the impact of the original partnership?

IT WILL GO WRONG AND THAT’S OK

Getting people to work together towards common goals is riddled with stumbling blocks and potholes. Particularly when there are competing interests, perspectives, and values at stake. Not to mention different organisational cultures.

The key? Communication. The willingness to have a conversation and to stay at the table even when the debate and discussion gets heated.

Here are some tips for getting your collaboration off to a good start:

  1. Be clear on the ‘rules of engagement’. All parties must be clear on the expectations and ideally have them set out in a legal agreement.
  2. Clarify the win-win. Understand what both, or all, parties have to gain.
  3. Don’t expect it to go smoothly. It won’t. So when it doesn’t, get back around the table and talk it out.
  4. Acknowledge that some partners may do more work than others and that’s okay
  5. Failures are fabulous feedback! Embrace the failures as stepping stones to success.
  6. Settle in for a long-term relationship. It can take years to reap the benefits of a good sustainable partnership, commit to it for the long-haul.

For more help, read the Forum for the Future Collaboration Guidebook (9). Happy collaborating!

References and further reading

  1. The Oxpeckers role in the Animal Kingdom. Wild Earth TV. <https://wildearth.tv/2018/01/oxpeckers-role-animal-kingdom/>
  2. <https://www.sustainabilityexchange.ac.uk/interface>
  3. <https://www.bio-bean.com/news-post/costa-coffee-extending-partnership-with-bio-bean/>
  4. <https://www.allbirds.co.uk/pages/allbirds-adidas-futurecraft-collaboration>
  5. Playing for the Planet <https://playing4theplanet.org/members/>
  6. Responsible Media Forum <https://responsiblemediaforum.org/home>
  7. Sustainable Fibre Initiative <https://sustainablefibre.org/>
  8. Rod Sterne, Deborah Heaney and Bruce Britton. The Partnership Toolbox. World Wildlife Fund (WWF): <http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/wwf_parthershiptoolboxartweb.pdf>
  9. Forum for the Future Collaboration Guidebook. https://www.forumforthefuture.org/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=f31e0322-cb43-4df6-8276-63351979fecd
Tamara Pitelenhttps://www.greenermatters.com/
Co-founder of sustainable consultancy Greener Matters, I'm an Associate of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA), as well as a graduate of the Cambridge Institute of Sustainable Leadership's Sustainable Business Management course. Before becoming a sustainability professional, I had a 25-year career in the media, starting out as a daily news journalist at The Christchurch Press in New Zealand before moving into digital media and magazine publishing in Australia, UK and Middle East. Now, along with my business partner, I help businesses and organisations understand the risks and opportunities of the decarbonising global economy as the race to net-zero by 2050 picks up speed. Sustainable business is good business. Originally from New Zealand, my work has taken me to London, Sydney, Hong Kong, and Dubai. I'm now based in Bath, UK (since 2016). While living in Dubai, I was Product Manager Digital for Arab Media Group, followed by Head of Digital at Arabian Radio Network. In both roles, I oversaw the groups' digital brands. From there, I moved to CPI Financial Publishing where I managed various consumer and contract magazines. A serial entrepreneur, as a side project in Dubai, I founded a magazine publishing company, Awakenings Media, in order to launch the region’s first health and wellness title, Awakenings Middle East. A second entrepreneurial project in Dubai was the launch of Social Circles Dubai, an online and offline social networking group.

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