6 ways collaboration can boost sustainability

A room filled with 10 companies, each at various stages of maturity in their sustainability programs. They’re in the same industry but are different sizes, from different markets, with different brand images and perspectives. My role is to facilitate discussion and gain consensus on a collaborative approach — despite all the differences.

I’ve been in rooms like this many times and have come to recognize there is always one constant: Collaboration is hard. Period. You have to balance competing needs and, compared to an individual corporate initiative, collaboration almost always takes more time, commitment and patience.

But it’s also worth it. Corporate collaboration can drive exponentially greater impacts. It can foster innovative solutions, level the playing field, move an industry, raise expectations for partners, influence policy and catalyze change in myriad ways.

At BSR, we recently launched five new collaborative initiatives for our member companies, and as I have worked with colleagues to get these started, I have been asking myself: How can we make these successful and just a little bit easier?

I came up with six ways. In the spirit of collaboration, I'm sharing my list:

1. Don’t follow a template

Over the past decade, corporate sustainability collaborations have appeared to follow the same formula: Create industry solutions to a particular issue by forming an initiative with a multistakeholder governance structure. While these collaborations are important and powerful, they are not the only viable approach.

I facilitated the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition for more than four years, growing the initiative from 15 to more than 50 electronics companies and helping institutionalize the EICC as its own entity. Unlike groups like the extractives industry’s Voluntary Principles — which includes companies, governments and NGOs — the EICC includes industry only. But that’s because the collaboration needed was across the complete supply chain, and EICC members represent the entire industry, from retailers and electronics brands to contract manufacturers and raw materials suppliers.

There is a need for a wide variety of collaborations: some within an industry, some multi-industry, some multistakeholder. Some are focused on standards and implementation, others on learning and sharing. But there is no one right way.

2. Embrace good governance

Regardless of what form they take, good governance is a critical part of improving performance or setting standards through formal collaborations. Take the time to define decision-making processes and roles, ensure sufficient administrative time and support staff and use effective meeting facilitation techniques. In some cases, this might mean hiring staff to ensure the long-term viability of the effort.

3. Take advantage of external pressure

Collaboration can be challenging and sometimes it helps to get an external push. The calamity at Rana Plaza that killed more than 1,000 apparel workers in Bangladesh was both predictable and avoidable. But the silver lining is that it spawned two new collaborative initiatives focused on systemic challenges to health and safety within Bangladesh’s garment industry. Ideally, it wouldn’t take a horrific event to trigger necessary collaboration, but it’s helpful to use these events or bring in external stakeholder input to drive buy-in from internal skeptics or additional peer companies.

4. Focus on the long term and recommit to your purpose

Collaborations take a lot of compromise, and sometimes they require two steps backward just to take one step forward. As with any long-standing relationship, it’s important to focus on the long term and remember why the group came together in the first place. I like to ask company representatives to restate why they joined a group several years later, so that they remember the value they were seeking in that collaboration. That commitment provides a foundation for healthy debate and the motivation to push through the difficulties.

5. Know when to move on

Often, we associate ending an effort with failure, when it’s actually a sign of success. Every group should review progress annually and assess whether it makes sense to continue. For three years, I led the Licensing Working Group, which comprised media and entertainment companies focused on helping licensees improve their social and environmental performance. The group developed a partnership with the international licensing association, conducted a global survey of licensees, ran several in-person and virtual workshops and published a guide translated into several languages.

Then we asked ourselves, “Now what?” We recognized that we had accomplished our goals, and the next step was for individual companies to integrate the lessons. So we sunset the group. I’ve seen groups in similar situations struggle to find a purpose to stay together. Instead, we should celebrate these endings, as there is plenty more work to do in other areas.

6. Be open to informal collaboration

Many informal networks play an important role in collaboration as well. For more than 20 years, BSR has been a membership organization focused on corporate sustainability, and when I took over leadership of our global membership a year and a half ago, I made a point to recommit to our membership model. With more than 250 member companies representing a wide range of industries and geographies, our membership provides a platform for informal collaboration through networking, events and learning opportunities, as well as the option to participate in and shape BSR’s more formal collaborative initiatives.

I often encourage companies to take advantage of their membership for these reasons: Formal initiatives are important, but they also take a lot of work, and sometimes all a company needs is a place to go for thought partnership and ideas. There are many opportunities for informal collaboration, through groups such as BSR, industry-specific associations and even social networks.

Collaboration is vital to achieving systemic change on critical sustainability challenges. It will be hard, but with some of these ideas, I hope it will be just a bit easier to reach the potential of collaboration and drive real impact.

Top image by BlueSkyImage via Shutterstock.