“Coming together is a beginning. Staying together is progress. And working together is success,” once said a rather eloquent Henry Ford.
It is the sort of slogan that would not look out of place emblazoned across one of the no-longer-empty trucks being shared by the likes of United Biscuits and Nestlé. In what is a perfect illustration of “working together” in action, the two rival snack businesses no longer ineffiencly run empty lorries on the UK’s roads. Instead, they carry each others goods between warehouses, making the most of the footprint created by the pair’s extensive fleets.
Of course, collaboration is nothing new; the concept of joint working has been around for decades and companies have picked up the mantle with mixed enthusiasm and success.
But it is certainly the buzzword of choice in sustainability circles right now; and rightly so.
Just take a look at the list of UN Sustainable Development Goals, which acts as a useful snapshot of today’s most pressing environmental and social challenges. Reducing poverty, boosting gender equality, dealing with climate change, creating decent work opportunities and fuelling growth. There’s not one company in the world that can solve any of these things alone.
These goals demand big changes to entire industries and sectors rather than piecemeal progress driven by individual company initiatives.
Together, businesses can start to work out some of the solutions and they can share ideas for doing business in a way that is more responsible and sustainable. When you break it down, most companies in a given sector are pretty much the same, in terms of process, structure and workforce. If Company X can create a zero-waste factory, for example, the knowledge of doing so can quite easily be shared with hundreds of thousands of other factory owners. But only if those companies are willing to collaborate.
There are some positive signs that collaboration is happening to create a better world, with companies working with each other, with NGOs and with government bodies. In fact, almost 70 per cent of companies responding to a recent survey on the subject, believe they are engaged in some sort of collaborative project.
As the following examples highlights, despite a range of barriers, there are numerous ways in which companies can collaborate, whether via sector initiatives, in supporting their suppliers, or in dealing with specific issues such as tackling climate change, or addressing youth unemployment.
Much of this collaboration is happening within sectors, usually with the more progressive trade organisations encouraging actions and commitments from member organisations. The Consumer Goods Forum has been a useful platform for many of the big consumer goods giants, like Unilever and Proctor and Gamble, to pilot new ideas and feel more confident that investing in things like farmer training, to help boost productivity and resilience at farms in the developing world, is the right thing to do.
Most recently, the global fashion house Kering – owner of Puma and Gucci – became one of the founding partners of a new fashion innovation accelerator, known as Plug And Play: Fashion for Good, designed to link incumbent businesses with small-scale start-ups that might have the technologies, methodologies and business models age-old companies might need to succeed in a world of scarce resources. C&A is another of the companies sign up, and has already started providing training and mentoring in return for access to start-up innovations – from alternative raw material sourcing to fabric and garment production – that might prove useful in the future.
Much collaboration demands strong leadership. As such, The B Team, the global nonprofit initiative co-founded by Sir Richard Branson and Jochen Zeitz, brings together a group of leaders from business and government to find better ways of doing business that prioritises the wellbeing of people and the planet.
Back in 2015, The B Team played a powerful role at the UN COP21 climate change meeting, calling for a long-term goal to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees – a crucial facet of the historic climate change deal struck by the world’s nations. Ten companies associated with the group, including Virgin Management, NRG, and Salesforce, joined forces to collectively agree to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The RE100 initiative, which encourages organisations to commit to sourcing 100 per cent of their electricity needs from clean technologies, has galvanised collective commitments in a similar way.
With the large majority of any one company’s environmental impact lying outside of its control in the supply chain, collaborating with suppliers is seen as fundamentally important to transforming industries to withstand the global threat of things like climate change.
The newly-launched Manufacture 2030 is an online platform designed to enable retailers, brands and their manufacturing suppliers to move beyond just squeezing them on price. By allowing the different players to share information and ideas in a Facebook-like environment, the hope is that they will find serious ways of cutting costs and reducing risks associated with energy and water use, and creating waste – the price of which continues to rise. By enabling hundreds of thousands of suppliers to work together online, the positive impact is inherently scalable and something Martin Chilcott, CEO of the organisation behind the programme, 2degrees, says could see every manufacturing factory reduce its use of resources by 50 per cent over the next ten years.
Solving specific challenges
Other great examples of effective joint working include the Australian Business and Community Network (ABCN), the brainchild of Singtel, Asia’s biggest mobile communications business. Initially an alliance of Singtel and six other companies, the ABCN was established to tackle social integration and youth inclusion issues, largely through mentoring schemes. Now, 30 companies are involved and since 2005, they have collectively provided 33,000 volunteers and helped 100,000 young people, creating positive social impact at real scale.
Meanwhile, Refrigerants, Naturally! is a project backed by the likes of Coca Cola, Unilever, PepsiCo and McDonald’s, all hoping to use their clout as big buyers of refrigeration equipment to put pressure on regulators to encourage the elimination of fluorinated gases, such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), hydrochlorofluorcarbons (HCFC) and hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), which arise from cooling appliances.
In a world of often harsh competitiveness, where businesses desperately vie for market share, getting companies to work together is easier said than done, despite the obvious advantages. Secrets are closely guarded especially at a time when being eco-friendly is becoming a key differentiator for companies keen to appeal to increasingly saving consumers.
But as these various examples attest, we’re all better off working together.
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