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Executive Report: Sustainability through Partnerships

Sustainability is a global problem with no single solution. Collaborative partnerships may be the key to tackling sustainability challenges going forward.

Optimize your collaboration with other organizations.

Collaboration is one of the keys to sustainability. Leaders from all sectors agree: solving environmental and social challenges requires unparalleled cooperation, and no single organization can do it alone. Which best practices enable firms to collaborate with other organizations to advance sustainable business? With help from the NBS Leadership Council, this report, Sustainability through Partnerships: A Guide for Executives, provides explicit guidance on how to select the right partner and manage the partnership process.

Divided into five sections summarizing key aspects of effective partnerships, this report is designed for:

  • Business leaders and change agents wishing to convene innovative, new sustainability teams;

  • Executives and sustainability managers seeking to advance a collaborative agenda to the C-suite;

  • NGOs, non-profit organizations, or small businesses that want to expand their network, share their stories, and learn sustainable best practices from other industry leaders.

Benefits of Collaborative Partnerships

Section 1: What can I achieve through partnerships?

Partnerships can help your business:

  • Innovate: Collaborative partnerships can identify unexplored opportunities and find new ways to address issues.

  • Achieve sustainability goals: Effective partnerships bring diverse insights together to tackle complex problems.

  • Gain access to skills and resources: NGO, community, and government partners have expertise that business may not.

  • Increase legitimacy and protect license to operate: Partnering with an NGO gives a firm additional credibility.

Partnership Types

Section 2: What type of partnership should I pursue?


Figure 1. Partnerships Type by Scope and Shared Responsibility


Many types of partnership exist, and in choosing one, you must consider the reason for which you are seeking a partnership, and what challenges you wish to solve:

  • Reactive partnerships: driven by threat, compliance, or charity.

  • Transactional partnerships: focus on improving profit or market share.

  • Integrative partnerships: balance bottom-line considerations with social and ecological concerns.

  • Transformative partnerships: seek wider societal improvement by meeting all partners’ objectives and empowering communities.

Optimization of Partnerships

Section 3: How can I make the partnership more effective – and collaborative?

To maximize your partnership experience, it is important to understand why different partnerships achieve different outcomes. This section describes the gains possible through collaboration, and the actions that will let you achieve them.


Toolkit and Checklist for Effective Partnerships

Some partnerships achieve both partners’ basic goals, or favour one partner over the other. Collaborative partnerships are the best way to achieve greatest benefit for both partners — and greatest innovation.

The checklist summarizes the report’s advice for each stage in a partnership: (1) deciding what type of partnership you need, (2) choosing partners and (3) managing the process.


Case Studies of Successful Partnerships

Read examples of lessons and outcomes from four strategic partnerships, covering areas such as problem solving, sustainability standards, labelling, and collaborative governance.

About the Research

This report is an extension of a larger systematic review authored by Drs. Barbara Gray and Jenna Stites of Pennsylvania State University. They reviewed over 275 relevant articles and reports, including the best current academic research. This report addresses one of the top priorities identified by the NBS Leadership Council in 2013.


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  • NBS

    The Network for Business Sustainability (NBS) is a non-profit advancing sustainable development to build a fairer and more environmentally sound future. We aim to improve business practice by facilitating knowledge sharing across an international community of business leaders, scholars, students and policy makers. With these stakeholders, we co-create high-quality content that enables practical action. Our content focuses on 6 critical sustainability themes, from climate change to social justice.

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