At the recent Sustainable Brands conference, one message was clear: individual corporate sustainability efforts aren’t enough to halt climate change. The solution: collaborative partnerships — even between competitors.

Sustainable Brands hosted its seventh annual community gathering in Paradise Point, San Diego during the first week of June. A key theme, repeated at many presentations, was succinctly framed by Sally Uren, acting chief executive, Forum for the Future: “pioneering companies are hitting the limits of what they can do alone.”

To address sustainability-related issues, these pioneers — and a growing number of other companies — are becoming more collaborative. Not merely with suppliers, but with competitors as well. The complexity of business problems connected with sustainability is demanding collective action. Below is a short list of some collective action efforts that, while not new, are gaining momentum in the corporate sector.

1. Creating or participating in industry coalitions to set standards and organize solutions. After creating a proprietary tool to gauge energy use across its many properties, Hilton Hotels realized that its procurement managers didn’t have enough information to effectively compare products with different levels of sustainability certification. How should these buyers compare a product that has stringent green certifications but higher upfront costs with a similar product that has lower stringent certification and less upfront costs? Hilton executives realized that the company couldn’t solve this type of complex issue on its own. So, the company worked with BSR to launch the Center for Sustainable Procurement to conduct research and share information to help procurement managers (its own and others) make more informed purchasing decisions.

2. Establishing strategic partnerships to address problems companies can’t tackle alone. The automotive industry, facing government mandates to develop more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, is seeing a rising number of strategic partnerships between rivals, as many automakers recognize that they can’t easily achieve alternative fuel car sales targets by acting alone. GM and Honda recently announced a partnership to develop hydrogen fuel cell technologies that they expect to have in commercial production by 2020. Toyota and BMW have a similar joint R&D effort underway, as do Ford, Daimler and Renault-Nissan.

3. Advancing public policies that promote sustainable societies. At the Sustainable Brands conference, Bill Shireman, president and CEO of Future 500, argued that companies should support public policies or make commitments to public advocacy groups like BICEP (Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy) to advance societal goals that go beyond what any one company can do. A recent post entitled Corporate Sustainability Is Not Sustainable by Harvard Business School Professor Mike Toffel and Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, makes a similar plea for companies to participate in these types of partnerships:

The reality is that even if one company eliminates its carbon footprint entirely — as Microsoft admirably pledged to do — global warming roars on. That’s because the problem is too vast for any single business: [S]olving climate change means we must switch to mostly carbon-free energy sources by 2050 or find a way to affordably capture carbon dioxide emissions, both monumental tasks. Even several very large companies cannot, on their own, get us there. In fact, historically, no big environmental problem — from air and water pollution to acid rain or ozone depletion — has ever been solved by businesses volunteering to do the right thing.

2 Comments On: Sustainability? Don’t Go It Alone

  • Dennis Mugimba | August 19, 2013

    Great thinking. The same principles apply to leadership development efforts in Organizations. Sustainable flow of the leadership pipeline calls for strategic partnerships with like-minded entities to address common challenges to do with employee learning. Each organization is better-off when the industry has a critical mass of leadership capacity to leap the business into the future.

  • Ulrich Wassmer | September 27, 2013

    This is a very recent article that gives a comprehensive overview of what we know and don’t know about environmental collaborations:

    Wassmer U, Paquin R, & Sharma S. 2013. The engagement of firms in environmental collaborations: Existing contributions and future directions; Business & Society, DOI: 10.1177/0007650312439865

    Ulrich Wassmer, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor of Strategy
    Ecully (France)

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