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Why Collaboration is the Foundation of a Sustainable Future

Words by 3p Contributor
Leadership & Transparency

By Joanne Sonenshine

My children will face one of two scenarios when they reach my age in 2050.

Either they will have to relocate north to escape burning temperatures in our home state of Virginia, pay high value for water given its near lack of existence and consume chemically produced food due to lack of land for agriculture, or (and hopefully more realistically) they are part of a generation that has finally figured out how to sustain our planet, feed the 9 billion people who inhibit the earth and ensure economic advancement for even the most underserved.

I have spent my career building a case for the second scenario, trying to find the solutions now that will contribute to a positive, productive and safe future for our children and our planet. What is apparent in this quest is the need for urgent action to address the challenges we so often read about: increases in the number of people vulnerable to natural disasters, agricultural yields declining by 50 percent and water nearly unattainable for all of Africa. Where will the change come from? Who will be the lasting leaders?

The rise of the partnership model

Over the last 25 years, we have seen a select group of leaders make bold commitments to address the urgent social, environmental and economic crises of our time. As early as 1990 -- when environmental action was saved for protesters, and social action was left for governments to grapple with -- one company decided to make a change that ultimately led us down the path of corporate sustainability and societal change.

After facing harsh criticism from the general public over the mounting waste caused by the fast food industry, much of it non-recyclable, McDonald's turned to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to analyze its packaging problems and develop effective solutions. In 1991, McDonald’s announced a massive overhaul to its packaging and waste program and eliminated more than 300 million pounds of packaging over the course of the next decade.

As a result of the packaging changes, McDonald’s also saved an estimated $6 million per year. This effort on the part of one company to identify a problem bigger than its own (i.e. trash and waste), find a partner in a nonprofit organization that was willing to engage and not turn away, and set an example for others to follow (which they did - including Coca Cola, which became the first company to use food-grade recycled PET plastic—known as rPET—in its packaging) was a first.

These collective actions led us into the current era of corporate social responsibility (CSR) -- where companies recognize their own self-interest in the social, economic and environmental benefits of ensuring a safe and healthier future for our planet. We have seen movement away from businesses whose only goals are to achieve financial profits and towards a scenario where businesses see incremental value in the leadership notoriety born of the responsibility for solving some of our most complex global problems.

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (GMCR) has taken the partnership model one step further. Having grown from a single coffee shop in Vermont to a multi-billion dollar beverage conglomerate over just three decades, they have identified ways to scale impact working with a series of partners. They have built a culture of giving back, dedicating a portion of pre-tax earnings each year to support social and environmental initiatives related to either areas of operation or programs in coffee origin communities. What they have recognized, however, is that in order to make true impact with these dollars, they need more help.

For example, together with several other roasters, GMCR is leading an effort to combat malnourishment and access to food in Latin America, which in turn keeps farmers healthy, happy and growing coffee for years to come. What GMCR has done is declare leadership by admitting that for true impact, environmental, social and economic commitments cannot be achievable by their company alone. They must include the involvement of others. Change must come over and over again in different shades and across different sectors.

Coming together for collective impact

This notion of businesses, governments, NGOs and others coming together to join forces for major impact is a term making a lot of traction in the CSR space. "Collective Impact." It’s how leaders (or "change agents") come together to create change and amplify at the scale and pace necessary to meet the needs of people beyond 2050.

In 2009, 29 members of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) released Vision 2050, a report addressing the growing problems we face as our population swells to almost unbearable limits and as our planet is tested by extreme environmental and economic challenges. Within the last few months, the Vision 2050 group recognized that the report alone is not sufficient. Change will only come from action.

Thus, the Action 2020 program has begun, led by business leaders keen to deliver on the goals set in the Vision 2050 report. According to the WBCSD, the effort "symbolize[s] the WBCSD’s move from developing thought leadership to driving action." This effort is collective impact at its finest. Companies breaking down silos, sharing information and ideas, and initiating joint efforts for larger global benefit economically, environmentally and socially.

Ultimately, collective impact helps companies see positive returns on their bottom lines as well. For example, Nestlé, the largest nutrition company in the world, has recognized that by sharing information and calling upon its competitors to join forces collegially to address critical issues like deforestation and sustainable sourcing, the impact on all business bottom lines will be positive. In particular, Nestlé "engage[s] and work[s] with external stakeholders on sustainability topics to ensure that [they] have the best knowledge and understanding to help…operational teams across the world." Companies like Nestlé are keen to move the needle.

Looking forward to 2050

It is thrilling to see this shift in business mentality. But more leaders are needed. While we have gained much in the CSR space in the last 25 years, the future of our planet is in question. With only 36 years until 2050, we have little time to waste.

I have heard a lot of talk about the need for "pre-competitive" action and joint ventures for improving inefficiencies across industry sectors, but I am not actually seeing much action. If we want to halt climate change, ensure future access to water, develop technologies to maintain food security and mitigate disease, we need to get moving.

Let's start walking the walk.

So how does an organization involve itself in collective impact? To get started, an organization must prioritize its goals and understand the space in which its goals are achievable. Next, it is critical to determine whether the goals can be achieved alone or are dependent on others. I would argue that almost always, true aspirational social impact goals must involve others. Next is one of the more difficult steps. Organizations need to understand the other players and their roles. Who are potential collaborators? What groups are already out there? Where is the best place to start the effort? At this stage, finding an appropriate connector to coordinate teams, develop strategies around collective impact and measure impact is critical.

In my more than 15 years working with companies and other organizations around corporate social responsibility, environmental impact and sustainability, what I notice time and again is the fortitude born by group action. We need to know who is out there, what they are doing and how we can contribute to each other’s’ missions. We need to make strong linkages and find the right chains to attach ourselves to. It’s about collective impact. It’s about ensuring the future not just for the good of the planet and its inhabitants, but for the bottom line.

Image: School children returning to their families' coffee farms in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia

Joanne Sonenshine is Founder + CEO at Connective Impact, aiding organizations in strategic goal development, partnership creation, consensus building and focused thinking in order to solve some of the most complex problems of our time.

3p Contributor

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