Leaders from Mars to McDonald's give voice to the power of partnerships

People look at the Goodera app in front of a display of the U.N. Global Goals in the hallway of the GreenBiz 18 conference in Phoenix.
ShutterstockGordon Murray
Participants in GreenBiz 18 look at the Goodera app in front of a display of the U.N. Global Goals in the hallway.

Collaboration runs through the sustainability movement like a sinew that not only holds it together, but also gives it its strength. And with good reason. In many ways, the sustainability movement exists today in response to the lack of collaboration in the past, especially on the part of businesses. Blindly following the credo (often attributed to Milton Friedman) that "the business of business is business" did immeasurable damage to whatever lay outside a company's immediate scope of concern.

This gave rise to the multiplicity of NGOs who stood up to defend and give voice to those under-represented elements, be they environmental, social or other. These have suffered as a result of what Kevin Rabinovitch, global VP of sustainability at Mars, referred to at GreenBiz 18 last week as "failures of collective governance."

We've seen all too clearly in the political sphere how tapping into frustration and identifying a common enemy effectively can build support for an individual or an organization. But any organization that draws it strength from anger will resist sitting down with an adversary to solve the complex problems behind the conflict.

Lowering voices

Politicians would do well to follow the example of so many businesses and NGOs at GreenBiz 18 in Phoenix, who have learned to move beyond this stalemate and sit down, roll up their sleeves and work together to address their issues.

Keith Kenny, vice president of sustainability at McDonald's, along with Tom Murray, vice president of EDF+Business, extolled the importance of customer demand for sustainability. Murray called this work with companies "the third wave of the environmental movement."

"Lower your voices," Kenny said. "Find what you agree on. Align where you can."

McDonald's announced its commitment to begin recycling "guest packaging." It has worked together with EDF for 25 years on this and other goals. Their partnership has brought and continues to bring McDonald's operations slowly around towards a circular economy model through reduction, reuse, recycling and composting. Together McDonald's and EDF have eliminated more than 300 million pounds of packaging and reduced restaurant waste by 30 percent, while saving the company some $6 million per year.

Another example of collaboration among participants at GreenBiz 18 is the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) working with Kroger to eliminate food waste or with Walmart in support of Project Gigaton, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions throughout the supply chain by 1 billion tons by 2030.

These are great examples of stakeholders from opposing positions coming together to confront a broad issue.

Pooling efforts

But other, equally important types of collaborations play a role. Some problems are too big for an individual company to tackle. This is where a group of companies within an industry or sector get together to pool their effort.

A good of example is in the renewable energy area, where many companies are committing to switching sources but require the cooperation of a complex utility industry in upheaval and need a clear signal. That's where groups such as Renewable Energy Buyers Association (REBA), the Climate Group's RE100 (part of the We Mean Business coalition) and the Rocky Mountain Institute's Business Renewables Center (BRC) take advantage of the considerable collective buying power of major companies to influence utilities on policies and pricing to make renewable purchasing more attractive and accessible. RE100 has 125 companies that have committed to 100-percent renewable power by 2020. BRC has set a target of 60GW by 2030, a goal shared with REBA.

Companies are joining forces to drive the penetration of renewables, making their case to regulators and legislators and by creating a market with their demand. Marty Spitzer, senior director, climate and renewable energy, World Wildlife Fund, spoke on a panel called "Accessing Renewables for All Corporates: Going Beyond Your First PPA."

"The change in the utility market happened because companies asked for it," he said.

According to Max Scher, sustainability manager at Salesforce, while tech giants such as Apple, Amazon and Google are the drivers with their massive server farm power purchases, smaller companies such as Salesforce benefit from the ease of access to renewables, both directly and through their suppliers.

Working on the ground

Ground is also being broken in operational collaboration. For example, GM has been working with utilities through the Clean Power Council to forge a path forward for electric vehicles. Besides simply buying power and providing specifications for charging stations, GM is providing utilities intimate access to every vehicle through its ONSTAR app, allowing them to interact with their electrical system when cars are connected to the grid through a charger. This bidirectional interaction, according to Britta Gross, GM's director of Advanced Vehicle Commercialization Strategy, essentially says, "Do whatever you want with my car battery, as long as you have it charged up by 6 a.m." This allows the utilities to potentially leverage thousands of batteries to help meet peak shaving or other short-term requirements.

Another form of collaboration comes in the form of mentoring. Companies that are sustainability veterans, such as Novozymes, help guide clients and suppliers along a more sustainable path. Others, such as Mars, Interface and JPMorgan, play similar roles. GM also has been mentoring others in the industry about how to achieve landfill-free factories, something it have been very successful with. Disney hopes to make its new sustainable packaging solution open-source to allow others to use and improve.

Collaborating with customers — by listening and co-creating both products and community initiatives, reflecting societal concerns — is yet another form of collaboration in what Suzanne Shelton of the Shelton Group called "consumers and companies working together to forge the future."

Going 'far and fast'

Next, a lot a good work is being done under the pre-competitive banner, which covers everything from basic research to setting industry standards. A saying goes, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." But what, asked Bryan Sheehan, U.S. director of Quantis, leading a session on pre-competitive consortiums, "if you need to go far and fast?"

Sheehan maintains that you need to go together, citing the example of a group of racers breaking away from the pack in the Tour de France. In industry, Intel did this along with HP, Dell and other IT companies, to jointly develop a tool called PAIA (PDF) that quickly measures greenhouse gas emissions. There is tremendous power in setting a goal as an industry, said Fawn Berger, global program manager of Water Stewardship and Carbon Footprint at Intel.

Similarly, Mars worked with some of its competitors to develop a methodology for collecting data and computing impacts of agricultural suppliers high up in their value chain.

First, said Rabinovitch, "we were never going to spend enough money on this to actually do a really good job figuring this out on our own." Second, "there's absolutely no reason for the way you calculate that to be proprietary." So Mars joined forces with other leading food companies including Coca-Cola, Unilever and General Mills to develop the World Food Lifecycle Database, which, he said, probably wouldn't have happened at all without the collaboration.

The list could go on for a very long time. Andy Butler, associate director of supplier diversity, sustainability and innovation at P&G, and Tom Cleves, VP of global citizenship at International Paper, took the stage. An "uncommon collaboration" resulted in the formation of the Carolinas Working Forest Conservation Collaborative to increase the prevalence of sustainable forestry management practices. The secret? "Willingness to be transparent," said Butler, also naming having the right agreements, the right people in the room and a level of trust.

To this Cleves added, "It works when there is a material relationship, and where core values and goals are shared."

Indeed, collaboration and sustainability are so intertwined, it's enough to make you wonder: If we humans could truly learn to work together in open collaboration, perhaps we might survive our own cleverness.

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