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.

Cruising for impact - Carnival's plan to help patrons vacation for development

The tourism industry has many unexplored opportunities when it comes to responsible business, supporting sustainable development in the countries where it operates, and helping clients travel with a cleaner conscience.

However, after reading about Carnival's plan to put a sort of hybrid cruise for rural development in motion (an example of which has cruise ship passengers installing water infrastructure for local residents in the Dominican Republic), I couldn't help but wonder how demand-driven their plan was.

I commend Carnival for trying to contribute to the communities in which it does business. I also applaud all steps towards reducing the negative social and environmental impacts of tourism. I just wonder what other options we might have when it comes to socially responsible business. Can we help cruise passengers get engaged with more than just water pipes? Is there potential to develop projects in collaboration with Dominicans that might lead to long-term local growth?

The tourism industry is an exciting place for brainstorming. This is partially because it still has a ways to go when it comes to embracing local residents as well as visitors, minimizing negative environmental impact, and increasing transparency in international supply chains. Businesses in the industry would certainly benefit from educating themselves about existing local needs. 

Piping water might be the answer - but it also might not. What might Carnival do that could foster long-term prosperity in vacation destinations? How might they help residents put their eggs in more than just the tourism basket? 

Let's follow what happens, discuss outcomes, and learn from our successes and mistakes.

Nestlé's big chance to Create Shared Value in California

Demonizing corporations is not a helpful tactic when it comes to fostering, building, and nurturing collaborations for social and environmental well-being. Corporations are powerful allies for change. Their supply chains span the globe, and when they choose to source responsibly and put money into ethical practices, the impact can be felt by millions. 

However, I couldn't help but notice some rather unfortunate timing on the part of Switzerland's most well-known food multinational, Nestlé.

California is in the throes of a multi-year drought. The state is parched. Wildfires rage. In the meantime, it produces a huge range of agricultural goods (including the notoriously thirsty almond, recently terrorized by bad press) for both national and international distribution and consumption.

Starbucks made the shrewd decision to move its bottling activities from California to Pennsylvania a few months ago. However, for some befuddling reason, Nestlé is carrying on.

This is an example of an opportunity for business to look good, support people and the environment, and do the right thing. Nestlé addresses the situation on its website, justifying its choice to continue bottling in the state. However, even if ceasing activities would make only the tiniest impact, as the company claims, that impact is an investment in the environment and people of California. That impact is a gesture of respect. Unfortunately for Nestlé, not withdrawing just looks bad. 

Continuing to bottle water in California is also a missed opportunity for Nestlé to stand by their Creating Shared Value principles, of which responsible water stewardship is a central pillar. Moving would be a chance for the company to "practice what they preach"

Nestlé - take this chance to do good (and look good).

A human rights blueprint for business offers CSV guidance

Prof. Dr. Florian Wettstein, Director of the Institute for Business Ethics at the University of St. Gallen, recently published some "unsolicited advice" for business when it comes to managing their behavior and taking on an advocacy role in a human rights context. His advice is not only relevant for human rights, but for environmental and livelihood advocacy and impact as well. In particular, it can frame an integrated Creating Shared Value approach to business

Here are the five principle steps he proposes to corporations working for good:

1) Be responsive. Don't be a moral crusader, just locate the issue and deal with it effectively. Wettstein says, "the yardstick for corporate advocacy is forming a global consensus that action, rather than inaction is needed by the company".

2) Collaborate. Work together with other institutions, including NGOs and activist groups.

A note from Rachel: This is a missed opportunity for numerous corporations and diversified organizations. Collaboration is the only way to build an eco-system allied with your objectives. And collaborations need time. Large organizations with deeply embedded routines and strong visions need to be open to discussing priorities, objectives, non-negotiables and methods with their allies. Only with enough time can multiple and diverse stakeholders reach organic agreements on a way forward suitable (and useful) for everyone at the table. It's also worth cross-checking at the end - does this solution really address the challenges we set out to tackle in the first place? Or is what we've built too much of a compromise? Did we just focus on our needs as organizations, or did we streamline our efforts to build useful social, environmental, and human rights based initiatives?

3) Be transparent. What you're doing should be trackable and traceable, and you need to be accountable.

4) Practice what you preach. Quite simply, Wettstein says "corporate advocacy is authentic only if the company supports the cause on a broader basis, through targeted action and in its own operations rather than only through words". 

5) Be judicious. Wettstein says that when responding to incidents, businesses need to consider scale. How far does it reach? Who's affected? Businesses should consider how their practices tacitly enable unacceptable conditions to continue and locate clear points for intervention in their supply chains.

A fantastic chance for some cross-pollination on social innovation at SIGEF, October 23-25 in Geneva

Having watched diversified companies strive to identify opportunities to generate positive social and environmental impact, I know that effective, profit-generating solutions are still in high demand.

There is room for improvement, and that's exciting. What's even more exciting is that in a climate of increased demand for accountability, businesses want to commit funds to projects that generate impact; projects they can assess and report on over the short- and long-term.

There are numerous ideas, plans, and talented people; there's a lot of experience, passion, and yes, money. But we need to build partnerships and share skills to really create lasting change - and to get the funds that will give us the chance.

The Social Innovation and Global Ethics Forum (SIGEF), hosted by Horyou and taking place October 23-25 in Geneva, is a place to do just that. According to Forbes, the event is projected to accomodate 5,000 participants and reach over 80 million people. Take a look - let's combine our ideas, motivation, contacts and resources for social and environmental impact.



"Corn Wars" - gatekeeping food access?

This article in The New Republic suggests that the U.S. government and U.S. corporations may use their control of the global supply of corn to solidify political leverage and increase their market dominance in nations that increasingly need the food. How can powerful multinationals locate opportunities to produce necessary foodstuffs and generate profit while benefitting society and the environment? The multi-faceted transnational processes that lead to complex relationships between companies, governments, and the communities they should be serving, can lead to practices that undermine people, their livelihoods, and their resilience. What are the opportunities, in situations like the one described here, to create shared value? Comments welcome.

"Activists in both China and the United States have raised concerns about just two corporations having so much influence over the world food supply, with so little transparency. (Despite repeated requests, DuPont Pioneer declined to participate in this story.)

But these fears, while well founded, miss the larger point of what such companies represent: the intent of the U.S. government to use food as an ever-more powerful point of leverage to wield over large, increasingly hungry nations like China. The prosecution of Mo Hailong and his circle stands as a warning to the Chinese government, issued through its proxy companies. The ears in the field, the seeds in the ground, even the pollen on the wind, are American-owned and American-protected. They are available to the world as food only if you agree to our conditions and are willing to pay our price."