No matter where your company is in its sustainability journey, the sooner it joins or initiates a collaboration with industry peers, the better. This guide should be in every sustainability professional’s back pocket when defining an ESG strategy.
After decades attempting to become sustainable independently, more businesses are finding it is simply impossible to achieve by working in isolation; they can only meaningfully advance by acting in concert with other industry actors. Although it is entirely possible to make incremental moves in areas that your business controls and directly influences, your organization soon comes across challenges it cannot address on its own. A sustainable supply chain? Closing the circular loop on your products? Mobilizing consumers on sustainable behaviours? All of these ambitions and more can only be effectively tackled through business collaborations.
Thankfully, a new guide has been published by Canada’s MaRS Discovery District, North America’s largest urban innovation hub, whose mission is to help innovators create a better world. With funding from the Canadian government, MaRS created a guide for businesses that recognize the need to collaborate with industry partners — even peers and competitors — to accelerate sustainability solutions. “Business-led ESG Collaboration: How-to Guide for Business” is a roadmap for businesses wanting to start or join an initiative to co-create sustainability solutions and get out of the sustainability doldrums. (Note: The guide was co-authored by the author of this article.)
Uniquely, it includes an inventory of nearly 100 global ESG collaborations that businesses can search to find a potential alliance in their sector that they can join right away. And it profiles 12 case studies of successful collaborations for inspiration.
What is a business-led ESG collaboration?
The guide defines a business-led ESG collaboration as a group of businesses in the same industry or across the industry’s value chain that voluntarily come together to tackle their social and environmental risks and impacts. They invent and co-create a sustainable pathway for their sector. They share risks, responsibilities, resources and benefits, and adhere to a shared process for decision-making.
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Research conducted for the guide shows that common focus areas for business collaborations include:
ESG collaborations pursue different strategies to advance the ESG performance of their members. For example, they:
Improve the industry’s social and/or environmental practices
Advance innovation in product reformulations and the product value chain
Transform the system in which the industry operates to be more aligned with planetary boundaries and an equitable, flourishing society.
How can your business benefit?
Businesses have much to gain from collaborating with others in industry to pursue shared ESG goals and overcome barriers together. Check out the following list to make your case internally for collaboration.
Leverage scale: Through economies of scale, businesses can use their broader influence and reach to achieve successful, more impactful, and enduring ESG outcomes.
Pool resources: Businesses can mobilize and pool their resources to collectively tackle an issue in cases where they lack the resources to do so on their own.
Access assets: Industry collaborations enable businesses to access each others’ networks, skills, technologies, physical assets and expertise.
Share risks: Working together, businesses can share the risk of new approaches with peers.
Shape standards: Business collaborations can create or influence industry ESG standards.
Increase efficiency: It is less resource- and time-intensive to address ESG issues and engage key stakeholders through collective action; some stakeholders may prefer to work at the sectoral level, rather than with a single business.
Manage risks: ESG issues can pose significant risks to businesses and their value chains. Through collaboration, sectors can identify and tackle risks together.
Build reputation: Collaborating on shared ESG issues builds industry trust, credibility, and reputation and can help build a sector’s social licence to operate and grow.
Meet expectations: Collaborative ESG leadership can address employee, investor, customer, regulatory and community expectations.
Influence policy: By working together businesses can shape, influence, and prepare for government ESG regulation; business collaborations can more easily influence policymakers than can any one organization alone.
Attract funding: ESG collaborations can leverage and stimulate government and philanthropic funding (e.g., foundations and donors).
Build relationships: ESG collaborations can build positive government and stakeholder relations.
Attract partners: Industry ESG leadership can attract partners who share the initiative’s goals and can contribute funding, insights, expertise, networks and other capacity on ESG; thus, increasing the probability of moving the needle on an issue.
Demonstrate leadership: An industry ESG collaboration can show business ESG leadership provincially, nationally and globally.
Accelerate innovation: Industries working together can unlock sector-wide market opportunities.
Steps to implementing an ESG collaboration
These are some of the common steps that companies pursue to assess the collaboration opportunity and then convene and mobilize industry partners.
ESG practices for business collaborations
The following sets out a pathway that ESG collaborations can pursue to build an industry or partnership’s capacity to mutually address their challenges and opportunities. This tool can equally be used by industry associations to help their members advance on ESG. (SDGs in the image below refers to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.) It is divided into basic, foundational practices beginning with consultation, information and education; and advanced practices where the collaboration adopts long-term goals, standards and metrics to steer the organization towards sustainability.
How does this work in practice?
Of the 12 case studies in the Guide, one example is the Canadian Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (CRSB). It was founded in 2014 to “address the desire for a collaborative approach to defining, discussing and improving sustainability in the Canadian beef industry. Founding members of the CRSB had a vision to create a space where beef producers, processors, agriculture and agri-food businesses, retail, foodservice companies, governments, researchers, academic institutions, animal care and environmental organizations could collaborate on the common goal of continuously improving the sustainability of beef production in Canada.” As the go-to Canadian forum for sustainable beef, the CRSB allows all stakeholders involved in the beef value chain to work collaboratively toward beef products that are environmentally, socially, and economically responsible.
In the early years, it adopted the five principles of beef sustainability developed by the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef: Natural Resources, People & the Community, Animal Health & Welfare, Food, Efficiency & Innovation. Its priority focus areas are greenhouse gas (GHG) management, carbon sequestration, wetland and habitat protection, food loss and waste, animal welfare and antimicrobial use. To guide its members in adopting sustainability practices, the roundtable developed a certification program called the Certified Sustainable Beef Framework.
Building on this standard, the CRSB created an industry-benchmarking tool, the National Beef Sustainability Assessment. This helps measure the industry’s environmental, social and economic performance, and spotlight areas where the industry is doing well and where improvement is needed. Using this benchmarking tool, it found that the Canadian industry has a GHG footprint approximately half of the global average, showing the success of their collaboration. The roundtable has now agreed on a 2022–2024 National Beef Strategy that includes a suite of 10-year goals to continually improve how cattle are raised and to enhance the natural environments under the care of beef farmers and ranchers.
No matter where your company is in its sustainability journey, the sooner it joins or initiates an ESG collaboration with industry peers, the better. The benefits are many and the risks and costs of going it alone are so great. This guide should be in every sustainability professional’s back pocket when defining an ESG strategy — to not only put the business on a sustainable course, but its overall industry, as well. Doing so is essential to ensure a sustainable future for all.