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Strength in Numbers:
Accelerating Sustainability Through Sector Collaboration

Often fearful of transitioning toward sustainability on their own, businesses find safety in numbers when working together. And one place to find these numbers is in industry, trade and professional groups or associations.

We are in the final inning. That sustainable future we all want? Not possible — unless companies work together across both sectors and shared value chains to innovate, share risks and overcome collective challenges.

After 20 years of helping businesses work — often in isolation — on their ESG risks and opportunities, I have come to realize the only path forward is through sector collaboration. Without that collaboration, the challenges are too great, the hurdles too high, the investments too costly, the metrics obscure and the pathway too murky.

By working on their ESG issues together, businesses can:

  • Learn about best practices, trends and risks

  • Develop transition pathways

  • Co-innovate and collectively fund solutions

  • Engage suppliers and other sectors

  • Partner with government on sustainable innovation and public policy

  • Mobilize capital and transform markets.

Through sectoral collaboration, businesses can steal bases. They can leverage their influence, reach and scale to drive change. Often fearful of transitioning on their own, businesses find safety in numbers when working together. And one place to find these numbers is in industry, trade and professional groups or associations.

Fortunately, we are starting to see some signs the association sector is stepping up to the plate. For example, the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), with over 48,000 association executive members from 7,400 associations, is mobilizing its membership through the 2023 publication of The Association’s Starter Guide to Sustainability and ESG. It defines key terms to build a shared sector vocabulary; a framework for associations to get started on their ESG strategy; and provides ESG tools, case studies and resources. This was in response to members who identified ESG as one of their top two areas of focus in 2022. They plan to increase their ESG programming this year.

The American Geophysical Union, a professional association lauded for its ESG vision, adopted a strategic plan that expressed its commitment to help solve scientific and societal challenges to create a thriving, sustainable and equitable future for the benefit of humanity and the planet. They recognized that to do that, collaborating and sharing knowledge within their community and with a diverse range of groups, partners and cultures is key to driving action and innovation. Their visionary sustainability journey is well-documented on page 23 of the ASAE’s free toolkit — which highlights their net-zero-renovated building in Washington, DC.

Some associations are creating transition pathways for their sectors to decarbonize, even in hard-to-abate sectors such as cement and concrete. Last year, the Cement Association of Canada adopted Concrete Zero — a cement and concrete industry action plan to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The industry is also the first and only industry association to join Canada’s Net-Zero Challenge, a federal government campaign launched in August to encourage signatories to transition their operations to net-zero emissions by 2050 with requirements to review and update their net-zero plans every five years and report on progress annually.

Some associations are heavy hitters, some are just stepping into the batter’s box, and some are still on the bench.

Another tool launched last year for associations is the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) ESG Guide for Associations. The image below provides an at-a-glance overview of the 19 practice areas, which collectively help associations develop ESG roadmaps for their sector or profession. Nearly 20 associations test-drove the tool and found it a useful reference to benchmark their practices, identify gaps, and create ESG roadmaps for their organizations. From basic practices such as information and education, to more advanced practices such as sector collaboration, standards development and social-purpose activation, the guide provides a list of 80 tasks that associations can use for self-assessment. Associations who go through this exercise typically identify themselves as “bronze” and set intentions to achieve a higher performance level in future years. The rating creates a powerful incentive for progress. By using the tool, associations save time and costs as they no longer have to invent their ESG pathway from the ground up.

Strandberg Consulting Inc. developed the ESG/SDG Works (above) in whole or in part found at CSA SPE 116 but transferred its rights to copyright to CSA. It has CSA’s permission to use these Works — including with modifications — however, is solely responsible for this use.

Canadian associations are already using the rating system (an easily downloadable excel spreadsheet within the guide) to set their ESG journey, enhance their sector’s narrative and position their sector as a greater force for good.

Sustainability professionals now have some handy tools they can share with the associations that represent their firms. Wondering how you can begin? Conduct an inventory of the associations — professional or industry — where your organization holds memberships. Find out if your organization is represented on the Board or on one of the association’s committees and share the ASAE and CSA tools with the association. If your organization is not involved, perhaps you could share these tools with peers who share these memberships and mount a small campaign to get your association to take on an ESG leadership role; they are usually waiting to hear from their members that this is an important topic.

If your association holds back, consider this other tool you and your peers can use to create your own ESG collaboration outside of the association. This how-to guide sets out the steps to starting your own peer-based ESG initiative with others who see the imperative of working together to overcome shared sustainability challenges and advance collective opportunities. For example, a group of major corporations have banded together to stimulate the production of “green steel.”

Either way, the times call for collective solutions. Collaborative corporate action is needed now to create a future where humanity thrives on a thriving planet. Sustainability professionals hold the bat, and achieving the home run will require sector collaboration.


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