From Backyard Hoodies to Bionic Yarn:
How Innovative Business Partnerships Could Help Us Achieve the SDGs

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of goals was the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York; they cover 17 key areas of development — including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. This post, which addresses Goal 17, first appeared on The Huffington Post on September 24, 2015.

Goal 17: Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize global partnerships for sustainable development

There is a wide variety of measures any business could take to contribute to meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), while creating new value for itself and its stakeholders in the process. Companies of any industry could learn a lot from recently launched novel partnerships between brands and influential societal forces, such as celebrities, trendy entrepreneurs and popular NGOs. Here are some examples grouped into five promising types of partnership-enabled innovation.

Partnerships supporting sustainable product and service innovation

There is a growing list of brands encouraging social and environmental entrepreneurship through crowdsourcing campaigns, competitions and other types of acceleration. Typically, the ultimate goal of such initiatives is to fold winning ideas into the sponsoring brand's portfolio, incentivizing and rewarding a wide pool of innovators in the process in order to achieve transformative innovation faster than the brand's internal processes would.

One prominent example is Unilever's Foundry IDEAS platform, which acts as a digital hub for consumers and entrepreneurs to work together on tackling global-sustainability challenges. Another is Target's Made to Matter, a curated collection of more than 120 products from 16 (expanded to 31 in 2015) food and personal-care brands known to be popular among increasingly health-conscious customers. Made to Matter brands are projected to bring in $1 billion for Target in 2015.

Partnerships mainstreaming key sustainability messages and inspiring behavior change at scale

Stand For Trees, a collaboration led by non-profit CodeREDD, is running a first-of-its kind consumer campaign that enables everyone — as opposed to just companies — to purchase verified carbon offsets. What's most remarkable about this is the unprecedented success of the main engagement tool the campaign is relying on -- a video by social-media celebrity Prince Ea, entitled Dear Future Generations: Sorry. It broke the record for most viral environmental campaign to date with more than 20 million views in its first 24 hours and more than 50 million views in the first week. There could hardly be a better example of mainstreaming an important sustainability message.

A range of other tactics are proving effective, too. Among my favorites: Heineken's collaboration with DJ Armin van Buuren for live experiments demonstrating the value of music as a substitute for excessive drinking; Ben & Jerry's partnership with The Guardian and a host of comedians for Too Hot to Handle, a humor-driven multimedia series encouraging readers to take "a lighter look at the dark problem of climate change"; as well as the Intuit QuickBooks Small Business Big Game contest, which is highlighting purpose-driven small businesses and awarding one of them a Super Bowl commercial spot.

Partnerships creating and scaling new forms of engagement within urban environments

The intersection of corporate sustainability and city sustainability carries a lot of potential for win-win public-private partnerships, though it remains relatively unexplored so far. Still, a few early movers are excelling at creating shared value, and reaping new business and brand benefits along the way. Despite some early glitches, New York City's Citi bikes have ultimately proven a big success for both the host city and the sponsoring brand. In another forward-looking example, Ford has recently launched 25 fascinating mobility experiments with cities around the world, ranging from car-sharing on demand in London, to a vehicle-sharing program for small communities in Bangalore, to remote-control-operated repositioning of vehicles in Atlanta.

Partnerships tapping a purpose-driven generation for well-targeted employee engagement campaigns

In early 2014, HP launched Matter to a Million, a five-year global partnership with non-profit micro-lending platform Kiva. HP provided a $25 credit for every one of its employees to lend to borrowers on Kiva, connecting HP employees with entrepreneurs in a number of countries. By strategically engaging leadership teams throughout the company and relying on friendly competition among employees, Matter to a Million has had huge success to date — more than 152,000 HP employees are already lending more than $9.8 million through 343,067 individual loans, and counting. The program is clearly striking a chord with HP's global employee base by providing an easy, entertaining and rewarding way to invest in intriguing entrepreneurs from a variety of backgrounds.

Partnerships improving living conditions and material sourcing in supply chains

My favorite example of this type of partnership is the Backyard Hoodie project, a collaboration between The North Face, Fibershed, Foxfibre, and the Sustainable Cotton Project. The goal is to produce a hoodie — entirely, from seed to garment — from within 150 miles of the San Francisco Bay Area. While the pilot round wasn't 100 percent successful (the process had to rely on one step outside the 150-mile range), it is showing tremendous promise that will surely prompt other major brands to play with similar concepts.

In another creative move, Belgian beer brand Stella Artois has seen a healthy amount of global buzz and stakeholder engagement for its social-impact campaign, Buy a Lady a Drink. Observing that women in developing countries spend a combined 200 million hours collecting clean water for their families every day, Stella Artois engaged and its celebrity co-founder Matt Damon to help put a stop to these water-collecting journeys.

I hope you agree there are reasons to be hopeful that a new generation of movement-makers is making progress in aligning innovation for sustainability with the interests of consumers and other important stakeholders. As we continue to watch these and other similar partnerships evolve within the global Sustainable Brands community, let's keep reminding ourselves of the power of multiplying one another's efforts in our shared pursuit of a thriving sustainable economy.

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