The role of business in the health of society and the planet has never been more critical. And as stakeholder calls for companies to use their resources for social and environmental good grow louder, it’s clear that not even multinationals can effect change on their own.
A July 19 Sustainable Brands™ webinar brought together sustainability and marketing leaders from Meta, eBay, Hotwire Global Communications and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) to discuss the imperative for an alliance-based approach to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) strategies and ways that companies can forge new partnerships to scale impact.
An alliance-based approach: Why now?
It is a decisive moment in history for the planet and society, and the role business plays in the outcome has never been more critical. Stakeholders are demanding that companies use their resources for social and environmental good; but as the calls for action grow louder, it’s clear that not even multinationals can effect change on their own.
“As we approach 2030, there is a clear opportunity for increased collaborations across sectors,” said Cecilia Viyella, Global Marketing Lead at Meta.
Many scientists and policy leaders believe the deadline for limiting warming to 1.5 degrees is fast approaching or has already passed. Throw in intersectional issues of social justice and the problem is even more harrowing, even for governments and multinationals.
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“There’s a lot of work to do even just for the commitments today,” said John Frey, Chief Technologist of Sustainable Transformation at HPE.
Not to mention the myriad solutions that still need to be implemented to stave off the climate crisis.
Scope 3: The elephant in the room
Scopes 1 and 2 emissions are relatively simple to tackle unilaterally; but taking on Scope 3 emissions is a complicated and daunting task that many companies are just figuring out how to address (scope 3 emissions represent 65-95 percent of most corporate emissions, and only 18 percent of companies report on them).
The panelists agreed supply chain and Scope 3 emissions are the biggest challenge to tackle — and successfully addressing them is highly dependent on supply chain minutiae and how they’re reported. And how supply chains are reported is largely dependent on what others in the industry are doing, highlighting the importance of uniting brand ESG strategies.
eBay is particularly interested in engaging pre-competitive partnerships to address its Scope 3 emissions.
“For Scope 3, there’s so much that has to be done with partnerships, because a lot of [eBay’s] Scope 3 comes from transporting our goods to our customers; but we don’t own any of the actual fleet,” said Alex Muir, Sustainability Manager at eBay.
This means deep collaboration with suppliers and vendors to reduce Scope 3 emissions. But Muir recommends making use of existing business partnerships and utilizing internal teams to ascertain what common KPIs and language mean for your organization.
“You need to be aware of what’s being done externally, but then also use the people you have internally,” Muir said.
Next steps in cross-sector collaboration
“Something we are struggling with now in the private sector is an aligning of standards and practices across the board,” Viyella said.
There’s no formulaic path to success. In fact, some of the best partnerships break the mold entirely, emblematic of the nuance of an all-hands-on-deck sort of problem requiring an all-hands-on-deck solution.
Inviting stakeholders from outside the industry clique is imperative. For Frey, some of the most effective albeit challenging partnerships arise when NGOs, stakeholders and seemingly disparate groups such as activists rally under one roof to work toward a common goal. He recommends actively seeking out the organizations and individuals most likely to throw stones at the partnership, and invite them in.
Including board members and investors is also needed. Common languages and KPIs have to span to non-staffers including board members and shareholders, who wield power in decision-making but might not be privy to the materiality of pre-competitive partnerships. Frey called for training for boards and investors to help them with partnership goal literacy.
“This is a topic you can’t go buy a book on or get a college degree in,” Frey said. “You have to learn how to do it and share that knowledge with others.”
Universal measurements are key, Viyella said, and should lead to industry-spanning frameworks that help sectors measure advancement and progress.
Where to start with measuring success
The UN Global Compact (UNGC) — one of the early universal, cross-sectoral ESG agreements — is a classic study of how partnerships can work.
The UNGC spawned the development of other collaborations such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the tech space, Frey saw this cross-sectional collaboration firsthand with supplier audits, which caused a ripple effect in the sector’s common supply chain for employee protection in source factories. This ripple effect eventually created the Responsible Business Alliance, a pre-competitive business partnership foundational in transforming supply chains across the world with common codes of conduct and auditing processes.
For those just starting out in pre-competitive industry partnerships, Viyella recommended alignment with the crown jewel of business partnerships: The SDGs. Next, choose a KPI; then build and talk about the progress to find common ground with other competitors and stakeholders.
“I think we as an industry need to show our advancement with common language and KPIs,” Viyella said.
For marketers: Tips on building ESG and sustainability partnerships into your brand strategy
Greenwashing is a real and present threat. Do the work to ensure accurate, authentic communications; come together; and then talk about it.
As a coalition is coming together, consider if the brands in the collective enhance one another or detract from the purpose.
Don’t hesitate to hire an external agency to help various organizations in your partnership reach consensus on common language, goals, values and co-marketing opportunities.
Lastly, measure and quantify as much as you can along the way.
Be aligned and grounded in your vision when talking about ESG.
Be curious about what other companies are doing; and don’t be afraid to gain inspiration and collaborate with the ones you admire.
Look for a global change with hyperlocal ramifications that everyone can work toward.
Use tech to leverage data in service of the SDGs and facilitate conversations about how to use data to meet these goals.
Have marketing communications aligned with ESG goals for consistent messaging.
At the end of the day, strive for authentic communication of ESG progress.
Aim for a mutual understanding and collaboration between ESG practitioners and marketing; and make sure what is communicated is fact-based, data-backed, and succinct.