Collaborating to Advance the SDGs: Three Considerations for Business Leaders

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February 27, 2024
  • Laura Hansson portrait

    Laura Hansson

    Manager, Consumer Sectors, BSR

  • Nicolas Ronderos portrait

    Nicolas Ronderos

    Associate Director, Collaboration, BSR

Key Points

  • Business-led multi-stakeholder collaborations play a key role in advancing the SDGs in that they bring together the knowledge, financial resources, and innovation capabilities of business and non-business actors to solve systemic challenges.
  • Successful collaborations are designed and facilitated by strong collaboration practitioners who ensure balanced governance, engage rightsholders and stakeholders in a meaningful and culturally sensitive way, and measure outcomes holistically.
  • BSR’s recent report, “Advancing the SDGs through Collaboration” , which draws on BSR’s extensive collaboration expertise and a partnership with Sida, shares further lessons learned and practical examples from incubating and facilitating business-led multi-stakeholder collaborations.

The latest UN progress report on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) highlights that the world has fallen behind on the 2030 Agenda. Only around 15% of the SDGs are currently on track for 2030. The SDGs, and in particular SDG 17 – Partnerships for the Goals, highlight that urgent and decisive action and collaboration between actors such as business, government, and civil society are needed to advance a future in which no one is left behind. 

Against this backdrop, BSR’s recently published report “Advancing the SDGs through Collaboration” explores the role that business-led multi-stakeholder collaborations can play in promoting the 2030 agenda. The report draws upon BSR’s extensive expertise in incubating, designing, and facilitating collaborative initiatives and leverages concrete examples of collaborative initiatives incubated through the CoLab SDGs program, a partnership with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

The report identifies three critical lessons learned that are particularly important to business leaders and collaboration practitioners, individuals who design, participate in, or manage collaborations: 

  1. Striking the right balance between participation and decision-making: Good governance in collaborations not only enables successful partnerships, fair decision-making, and transparency but also creates legitimacy. BSR’s governance framework that is based on two factor—decision-making and participation—identifies four governance models that are particularly useful when designing business-led collaborations that may allocate governance seats to stakeholders other than businesses including NGOs, governments, unions, workers representatives, or industry associations. For example, the Sustainable Coconut Partnership makes decisions via a steering committee made up of industry members that founded the initiative, but also allows participation of diverse stakeholders. Given its recent growth, this approach facilitates governance by delegating to a group of members on decision-making. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to governance, and governance models need to be carefully designed based on the vision, mission, intended outcomes, and participants of the collaboration. 

  1. Centering the rightsholder perspective: Business-led collaborations that focus on the SDGs frequently run the risk of designing solutions for rightsholders without including their voices in the process. It is paramount for collaboration practitioners to map their stakeholders and rightsholders carefully; design engagement approaches that are appropriate, culturally sensitive, and accessible; and consult or engage them systematically throughout the entire collaboration lifecycle—from ideation to launch as well as daily operations. By including the perspectives of women workers through continuous engagement in their native language and via local partner organizations or representatives, RISE, a leading collaboration advancing gender equality in the global garment, footwear, and home textiles industries, manages to center the voices of key rightsholders in a meaningful way. RISE also guarantees that women workers are represented at every level, from governance to project implementation, ensuring that the work responds to their real needs and priorities. Collaboration practitioners must integrate the voices of multiple and diverse stakeholders and rightsholders—either directly or via representatives such as labor unions or grassroots organizations—to ensure that collaborations contribute effectively to sustainable development for all. 

  1. Measuring collaboration impacts in a systematic manner: Finally, collaboration practitioners must keep in mind that not all ideas for partnerships result in formal business-led multi-stakeholder collaborations—and that’s okay! For example, some ideas may not be pursued due to duplication with other existing initiatives, a lack of buy-in from business or other stakeholders, or a lack of resources. However, the decision as to whether to form a collaboration is often informed by extensive landscape research, exploratory projects, and stakeholder discussions, all of which significantly help advance knowledge on critical sustainability issues. For example, Keeping Workers in the Loop, a project that explored the impact of circularity on jobs in the fashion industry, uncovered the need for further research on the ecological, social, and economic impact of global used-textile product flows. While the project has not resulted in the launch of a formal business-led collaboration, a clear need for further research and dialogue was identified. This demonstrates that measuring collaboration success must be done systematically, considering not only the direct outcomes (i.e., whether an initiative has been established or not) but also understanding that positive benefits and impacts can play out in several different ways. 

Business-led multi-stakeholder collaborations will be key in addressing many of the world’s systemic sustainability and development challenges. They will require strong collaboration practitioners as change agents who are aware of the potential pitfalls of developing and launching collaborations—from governance to rightsholder engagement and measuring collaboration impacts.


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