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How Business Can Work with Society

Many sustainability issues can’t be solved by one business. Instead, different parts of society must work together. NBS resources show how.

The Network for Business Sustainability has been working with companies on sustainability issues since 2008. Around 2012, NBS saw a change in those companies.

Many had worked hard to make their operations more sustainable, putting strategic and technical changes into place.

Now, they told us, the sustainability issues they faced required them to reach outside their company gates, and find new collaborators.

Different Ways to Work with Society

Companies can reach out relatively narrowly or much more broadly. A single company may face a community group pressing for change: for example, to make a factory less polluting.

Alternatively, issues can stretch beyond a single company and community. They may require the involvement of an entire industry – or more. For example, food waste is a major problem, with 40% of food in the US and Canada unused. Reducing food waste requires action by farmers, food processors and retailers, and government, among other organizations.

Individual consumers and citizens also affect many social and environmental issues. They can choose to purchase sustainably-made goods, elect politicians who support sustainability, and contribute their own energy and ideas.

NBS resources can guide your organization in engaging with all these members of society. Here are some specific resources for different kinds of engagement.

Work with the Local Community

Individual companies benefit from positive relationships with their communities. Being seen as a good neighbour makes it easier to attract employees and get regulatory approval, for example.

NBS’s guide, Engage Your Community Stakeholders, identifies three ways companies can engage with communities: “investment,” “involvement,” and “integration.” These different approaches vary in their complexity and also their value. “Integration” can be challenging but can also result in tremendous learning for companies. The guide walks you through every stage of taking action.

For companies in the extractives sector, relationships with communities can be especially challenging. The Community Engagement Toolkit for Mining Companies provides detailed guidance for assessment and engagement in this sphere.

Build a Broader Partnership

When a company faces a larger problem — for example, one affecting the whole industry — a different approach can be useful. Competitor collaboration engages companies across an industry. NBS’s resources guide companies in pooling resources to achieve common goals. Multi-sector partnerships bring together industry representatives (such as individual businesses and industry associations) with government and/ or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Our report, Sustainability through Partnerships identifies different types of partnerships, when they are appropriate, and how to make them most effective.

Working effectively with government is also important. Government policies have tremendous influence on companies and issues affecting them. Good policy helps markets work for both the economy and society. NBS’s report, Building Effective Environmental Policy, identifies how businesses can feed into the policymaking process at different stages and what policies are most effective and efficient.

Engage Consumers and Citizens

Working not just with other organizations, but with citizens and consumers, can help tackle questions that are on the horizon—or make profound change that goes beyond a single industry.

Consumers can be important allies in advancing sustainability, and firms can increase consumer willingness to support sustainable goods through specific marketing approaches. NBS’s report on Socially Conscious Consumerism describes how best to reach consumers on sustainability issues.

Certain strategies can be used to positively affect the behaviour of all individuals: consumers, employees, and/ or community members. NBS’s research on Driving Social Change identifies ways that companies can affect behaviours in areas such as the environment, health, civic engagement, and social and economic inclusion. These changes benefit companies as well, through reputational benefits and an improved business environment.

For particularly difficult issues, consider civic dialogue. Civic dialogue brings citizens and concerned organizations together to establish shared understanding on controversial and uncertain topics, such as energy use or nuclear waste disposal. The goal is to build consensus necessary for appropriate and sustainable action. NBS offers an Executive Briefing on civic dialogue and a Best Practices Guide with many examples.

Go the Distance

Working with members of society is both challenging and productive. As the saying goes, “if you want to go far, go together.” NBS resources help you on that journey.

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