How to work with corporations on multi-stakeholder sustainability projects

At the end of September, international leaders will sign their support onto the UN's Sustainable Development Goals. But how can we make these 17 long-term and abstract objectives a reality? 

At a panel in Zurich last night, one thing emerged above all: the private sector will play a critical role going forward. So how can we guide businesses in a direction that benefits all sectors? 

Based on experiences gathered while collaborating with a multinational on impact assessment, I put together a few learnings that have helped me when working together with business in complex environments. The list is especially intended to start conversations with my peers working in academia and at NGOs.

1) Take the power of business seriously. Whether we like it or not, corporate actors are a force for change. Consumer demand means businesses will be putting increasing amounts of money into social and environmental causes. Even if we feel that the private sector is not doing enough or that actions are guided by profit rather than conscience, we have an opportunity to get involved in the development of sustainability projects and strategies with real impact. In sum, corporations have more money and scale than NGOs, universities, and often, governments. They also have established organizational structures for spreading it around. Let's use that to our advantage in achieving the SDGs.

2) Pool knowledge to build effective new business strategies. Many of us working for change outside the private sector, for example those of us at NGOs and involved in activism or academia, still need to figure out how to make what we know heard in business. We need to reach out and collaborate with a focus on solutions. At least from my experience, businesses know they need to do something, but sometimes don't know how or where to start. Voices from the Global South (or from those who have spent extensive time working there) are valuable, since transnational supply chains have developed far ahead of transnational and transcultural knowledge, understanding, and awareness.

3) Translate and abbreviate what you know so that people in diversified companies can make use of it. Yves Morieux from the Boston Consulting Group has given a couple of TED Talks that do a fantastic job of boiling down challenges of complexity managers face. For those of us trying to introduce new and unprecedented (sustainability) issues into everyday business practice, understanding what our corporate allies are up against is critical.

4) Simplicity is key. We can't write 60-page reports detailing every livelihood challenge in a given country followed by each opportunity we think our allies have to create impact. Again - just in my experience, managers want to be told about the problem, the opportunity, and the potential value-added in two pages or less. Pick one challenge and opportunity, and then compose a succinct argument about why it's the right one to focus on. My recommendations were heard best when I clearly delineated the top ways in they would add value to the company, environment, and society. The question of impact measurement is a challenging one, but if you are able to generate a plan, accompanied by a few indicators, all the better. 

5) Understand how the business you're working with is structured. When it comes to suggesting ethical practices or sustainability interventions that add value to companies and society, if managers cannot make use of what we're telling them because we are not clear on how their companies work, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Diversified multinational firms, in my experience, can be so large and complex that it takes repeated conversations on multiple levels of their supply chains just to get a basic understanding of how sourcing works for one product in one country. 

6) Who's carrying out the plan? This is something we should think about from the start, so we can ensure the additional work they'll be taking on makes their lives better, or at the very least not substantially worse. 

7) Learn from projects that don't achieve their intended purpose. We are in such early stages of this whole sustainable business process that it's almost less important what we do than that we at least try something. Even initiatives with not-so-impressive outcomes can add value to business and society. Headquarters can still publish a report on how much money they pumped into an alliance or project, thereby bolstering consumer trust. So try something, and hold onto learnings for next time.

8) Be pragmatic and disciplined. What we find out when doing research in advance of planning a project or developing a strategy is a snapshot that's changing fast, so there's really no point in developing an overly complex data collection plan. Managers in subsidiary markets in addition to headquarters have to see the value of proposals, and initiatives we develop mean more work for people at multiple levels of the organization. When it comes to rural development projects in the food sector, for example, those people might include agronomists working more than 60 hours a week, visiting multiple farms across a wide area. They may not have the time or see the point of orchestrating the collection of hundreds of oral histories, and then cross-referencing the findings with thousands of surveys.

9) Share even the simplest insights about farm-level realities. When many managers in diversified companies visit poor sourcing communities, they generally pay attention to things like quality, productivity, plant diseases, best practices, and challenges standing in the way of profit. So if you've paid attention to other things, make them known. 

10) Develop a (short) timeline. It should consider the short-term funding allocation schedules of corporations, and there should be deliverables within a year.