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How To Form Sustainability Partnerships

Teamwork and collaboration can bring mutual benefits

The Guardian | February 22, 2021

Just do it: Nike has moved towards a sustainable business model, sharing some of its design tools with the rest of the industry. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

As companies like Nike have recently demonstrated, establishing sustainable partnerships can do wonders to help raise your profile. But collaborating is no walk in the park, and it’s not just about trying to make yourself look green by association. It can be hard work and disruptive, but even so there are genuine benefits to be had from teaming up with outside experts, or even competitors. WWF’s Oliver Greenfield and Dax Lovegrove, and David Bent from Forum for the Future, show us how to do this.

What’s in it for you?

Sustainable partnerships may not be suitable for everyone, so first figure out if it’s appropriate for your business. Remember this is not just some PR exercise, many sustainability issues actually require some form of collaboration. So read the signs in order to establish what problems it can help you solve. If there is an issue that you find hard to define, which everyone is waiting for someone else to start, or which requires expertise or resources that you don’t have in-house, then that is usually a good place to start.


What’s in it for them?

Select your partners with care. Try to understand how they may benefit and what their strategic objectives might be. Also identify their potential limitations; just how far can they take it? When looking for potential candidates try to identify organisations who may share your end goals, converging but not competing with you in this area.



If there are a number of key areas that can benefit from a sustainable partnership try to prioritise those in most urgent need of attention, or where understanding and awareness is low. For example water stewardship is becoming a critical issue, but few companies have a clear understanding of their water footprint and how to improve it.


Keep your options open

It can help to have more than one area of focus within the collaboration. That way when one stalls or gets tricky there should still be some scope to make progress in other projects, thereby keeping the partnership positive.


Prepare for change

Collaborating is not about contracting out a problem, it’s about building a mutually beneficial partnership. So be prepared to invest time and make changes within your business. Look to see what you can gain from the knowledge and skills that your chosen partners bring to the table.


Critical friend

At the same time don’t treat your collaborators as a consultant or some kind of junior partner. Trust is crucial. Their value is to constructively challenge and advise you in order to help find solutions. Some NGOs now use institutional structures to aid partnerships; appointing a dedicated relationship manager, referring to itself as a “critical friend” and using corporate engagement guidelines with which you will have to comply.


Common understanding

When partnering with an NGO or other businesses it’s important to reach a common understanding on how this partnership will improve the environmental performance of your business. Even if you have established a shared goal remember that things can change. So have regular reviews to assess your progress and to ensure that you still share the same goals.


Reach out

Don’t limit yourself to one partner. If the issue you are addressing affects the entire industry, or supply chain, try to establish network collaborations. Existing industry associations or campaign groups may be able to help. When working with competitors it may also help as an act of faith to give more than you are getting, as was the case with Nike making its environmental apparel design tools, which it has spent years developing, available to the rest of the industry. By creating an Eco-rating for mobile phones O2 helped to engage both consumers and handset manufacturers.


Share your vision

To avoid any accusations of greenwash it’s important to make your commitments clear from the start and regularly review your progress. But it doesn’t hurt to have targets either, provided you attain them. Don’t be afraid to use shared visions. Tourism 2023 used futuristic scenarios to communicate its vision for how a sustainable form of outbound tourism might look in 2023. This in turn helped to encourage other leading players in the sector to sign up to the partnership.


An NGO is not just for Christmas …

If this partnership is going to make a real difference then the chances are it will affect your entire organisation for some considerable time to come. The issues can be quite complex and can change, and so will likely require ongoing attention and action. So before you get everyone involved make sure you have the time and resources to really commit to this for the long term.

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