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How to Work with Other Organizations: NBS Resources

Sustainability is about interdependence. That’s one reason working with other organizations can increase the impact of your sustainability efforts.

Partnerships can extend your influence give you new insights and resources to draw on.

Some partners may be familiar: for example, you may be accustomed to coordinating with members of your supply chain. Improved relationships can lead to benefits in many areas.

Other partners may not have occurred to you. Collaborating with competitors to solve issues that shape an industry is an increasingly common, and effective, tactic. NGOs can also prove effective allies when a shared goal transcends divergent interests. NBS resources can guide you in each type of interaction.

Partner with Suppliers & Vendors

Addressing your firm’s direct social and environmental impacts is important. But increasingly, stakeholders expect companies to take responsibility for their entire supply chain.

Supply chains, which are more complex and global than ever before, are full of both risks and opportunities. The risks range from inconsistent or poor quality to supply disruptions to health and safety concerns to corruption. Relevant environmental issues typically include waste and emissions, but may extend to recycling and product design.

The good news: addressing sustainability concerns in your supply chain can improve other performance issues as well. NBS’s report on Managing Sustainable Global Supply Chains provides a baseline and best practice framework for supplier engagement. Each will improve all dimensions of your supply chain.

The guidance is designed for executives and senior supply chain, purchasing and sustainability managers. John Coyne, Vice President, Legal and External Affairs, Unilever Canada, encourages companies to use the research “to address product quality challenges, decrease compliance issues, and manage risks associated with overseas suppliers.”

Partner with Competitors

Competitors can seem unlikely partners. Yet issues such as safety, supplier compliance, and product stewardship matter to entire industries, not just one firm. As a result, businesses working on these issues increasingly find themselves doing something they never thought they would — working with competitors.

Through these collaborations, they can reduce reputational risks, support new technology development, develop shared standards, and communicate effectively with regulators. Successful collaborations have transformed multiple industries, from chemicals to close.

Jim Donihee of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association describes how firms have learned to work together: “To improve trust among our member firms, we’ve been working with a formula that attempts to unpack the concept of trust. It involves humility, authenticity, presence, looking each other in the eye, and understanding just how committed we are to making this better.”

NBS offers a Manager Guide and Assessment Tool on competitor collaboration, intended for business managers, industry association representatives, and NGO leaders. The resources show how businesses can achieve their goals by balancing the tensions between collaboration and competition, and between accountability and flexibility.

Partner with Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or “civil society organizations” have expertise and influence that can make them valuable partners. NBS provides advice on two approaches to working with them: multi-sector partnerships and civic dialogue.

Multi-Sector Partnerships

In 1990, when McDonalds and the Environmental Defense Fund worked together to reduce “clamshell” packaging, the alliance — and its success — surprised many.

Today, partnerships between businesses and NGOs are much more common. Each type of organization recognizes the contribution the other can make. Partnerships with NGOs can help businesses innovate, achieve sustainability goals, gain access to skills and resources, and increase legitimacy and protect license to operate.

Not all partnerships create these positive outcomes. Benefits — especially innovation — are particularly likely when the partnership is truly “collaborative.”Collaborative partnerships are interdependent, with partners working closely together.

NBS’s Sustainability through Partnerships identifies different types of partnerships, when they are appropriate, and how to make them most effective. The guidance can help change agents convene innovative sustainability teams, managers advance a collaborative agenda, and NGOs work effectively with business.

Civic Dialogue

Civic dialogues allows businesses to engage directly with citizens around broad social issues, rather than working through organizations. 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 of such engagement is to build agreement necessary for appropriate and sustainable action. In multiple settings, dialogues have achieved widespread change on complex issues, such as national energy policy or nuclear waste disposal.

In the past, governments have often hosted civic dialogues. As governments have fewer resources and become more polarized, charitable organizations have often hosted dialogues; other NGOs can also be involved.

“There is an inherent wisdom among citizens that business would be wise to tap.”

Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Founding President & Ceo, Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization

Businesses have historically played little role, but can make a major contribution, by leading, helping to plan, and/or participating in dialogues.

Businesses can achieve broad sustainability goals by participating in civic dialogue. Civic dialogues can also help businesses understand customers, build brand and market and change the rules of the game.

NBS offers a Business Briefing on civic dialogue, intended for executives and those who want to make the case for involvement; and a Best Practices Guide, for those charged with implementing business involvement in a dialogue.

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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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