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Using associations to leverage change in sustainability

As humans we gravitate towards groups of like-minded people and as sustainability professionals in today’s market, there’s no shortage of such group. Since returning to the United States to open the Global Reporting Initiative’s Focal Point USA, one of my primary focuses has been to find and work with business groups (i.e., associations) to more efficiently and effectively multiply the GRI story. (See my February 2012 report, What GRI Learned in its First Year.) Professional associations have become one of our best opportunities to spread the word.

Associations range from a few dozen members, to tens of thousands of members and can represent all sorts of constituencies, such as the well-known U.S. lawyers association, the American Bar Association, or the association of drivers, the American Automobile Association. They generally have their own annual events and substantial resources and infrastructure to support their members interests.

The most important thing I’ve learned about leveraging associations to promote sustainability is to identify and engage associations where there are common interests, such as educating their members on the latest global trends — like sustainability. It should be noted that historically, associations haven’t been seen as being very progressive, frequently known for representing the interests of their least-proactive members. When associations rise to the occasion, however, they can be potent advocates for sustainability.

One such example is the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG) an association where “professionals from a diverse group of stakeholders work collaboratively to streamline industry processes via global standards development and harmonized business practices.” AIAG’s members are comprised of more than 60,000 industry participants worldwide representing more than 900 organizations. The association was founded in 1982 by representatives from the three large North American automotive manufacturers – Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors — and has since grown to include Japanese companies such as Toyota, Honda, and Nissan.

Each of these companies is a GRI reporter and the above links take you to their respective GRI reports. As such, these founding members recognize the value in measuring, managing and reporting sustainability information. They also recognize the value in doing so in a standardized manner, such as through GRI. In addition, they see the value of having their suppliers (many of which they share) report in a standardized manner. Hence some very common interests emerge within the AIAG.

In March 2012, AIAG held its second annual Corporate Responsibility Summit in Detroit, where the organization announced it would become a GRI Organizational Stakeholder and that it would launch a sustainability training program tailored to its members. The program launched in June with the announcement that AIAG would offer GRI training. AIAG also intends to work with its members to form a collective voice of input on the G4 Development Process — the next version of the GRI reporting standard — as well as any future automotive sector supplements and other reporting developments. AIAG will also encourage collaboration on initiatives that will use GRI to address “survey fatigue,” thus reducing the proliferation of requests that presently burden companies in the industry.

This type of leadership opportunity has lead to a more focused effort to engage directly with a range of strategic associations. We can proudly point to an entirely new collection of GRI Organizational Stakeholders that are ready, willing and able to help us harmonize our sustainability efforts. Among the professional associations that have became official GRI Organizational Stakeholders are the American Society of Safety Engineers, the American Industrial Hygiene Association, the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, the Center for Safety and Health in Sustainability, the National Association of Environmental Managers (NAEM), the US Green Building Council, and VHA (formerly "Voluntary Hospitals of America").

Others, like the Chief Responsibility Officers Association, have become GRI Organizational Stakeholders, as well as active supporting partners by integrating GRI content into their publications and events, such as their annual CommitForum.

A wide range of other membership organizations have also shown their support of GRI’s efforts to standardize sustainability by joining the GRI OS Program, and by inviting GRI to share the latest sustainability reporting developments with their members through webinars, workshops and at their own events.

Most important, however, has been the ability of these associations to be at the table to provide input during the G4 Public Comment Period, as well as the mobilization of their global networks to provide feedback on G4. These groups are not only raising global awareness about the linkage between sustainability and their own associations’ interests, they are directly influencing the future of sustainability reporting.

Many of us already belong to a wide range of associations, either individually through a professional association or organizationally through an industry association. Here are a few suggestions for how to leverage these networks for our collective sustainability interests.

  • Influence:  Associations want to hear from their members.  Let your association know that sustainability is not a fad and is here to stay.  Sustainability touches every sector of the economy (corporate, government, nonprofit and academia) and has implications on every profession. Find the connection and work it into your association’s programming.
  • Integrate:  Manage your limited time and resources by helping your existing associations integrate more relevant sustainability content into their programming.  Help them identify and report out on the most relevant stories for your industry or profession.  Point them to great examples and help them build cutting edge sustainability stories into their next annual conference, or their webinar series.
  • Collaborate:  Introduce your existing business associations to your sustainability networks.  Ask them to work together to find new and creative solutions for their respective audiences.  Showcase leadership examples of professions, industries and the application of sustainability to these audiences.
  • Activate:  The AIAG example of actively joining in GRI’s efforts and developing training specifically tailored to their members needs and interests is a fantastic example.  Let’s work together to recreate this across other industries.

If you are interested in learning more about how GRI is engaging with associations around the world, please see The Multiplier Effect – How Associations Can Shape Sustainability.

Image of Working together team concept by Vaju Ariel via Shutterstock.

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