Redefining Sustainable Business: Radical Collaboration, Inside and Out 

September 21, 2017
  • Eric Olson

    Former Senior Vice President, BSR

As our CEO Aron Cramer articulated in his recent post, our continually evolving landscape means “a new agenda for business, new tools for sustainability leaders, and, in a world of political volatility, a new approach to business leadership” are urgently needed.

The world is increasingly looking to businesses—and business leaders—to chart a path forward on a range of critical topics, from diversity and inclusion to climate action.

One key element of this new approach will be a dramatically increased role for collaboration, both within organizations and between companies and their stakeholders.

For example, at BSR we are engaging member companies in the development of formal strategies and plans to understand and address vulnerability to climate change and related impacts across their entire value chains. These rapidly growing efforts aimed at building climate resilience provide a useful case study of what sustainable business will increasingly require.

While we are still in the early stages of this work, two things have become clear.

First, business can’t do it alone.

The challenge of building resilience to climate change—as so painfully illustrated by recent extreme weather events around the world—is the very definition of a “systems challenge.” Most companies have some degree of business continuity planning in place focused on the “hardening” of physical company infrastructure. This is of course critically important, but it is just the beginning of a journey that must also address the following questions:

  • Even if our facilities are secured, will our employees be able to make it work?
  • Will our suppliers be able to provide the inputs we need to maintain production?
  • How well equipped are the communities we operate in to restore/resume operations and commerce in the aftermath of a storm or other disruptive event?
  • What investments can and should we make in building critical infrastructure and capabilities across our value chain—and what is our best role vis-a-vis public sector and other players?

Even more important than the increased expectations of business is the stark reality that business cannot achieve its objectives without working with other sectors. Specifically, business needs to step up its approach to advocacy and collaboration, using the full range of its core competencies to enable and influence stakeholders in the public sector and civil society.

And the sustainability department certainly can’t do it alone.

This leads us to a second, more internally focused point about addressing resilience and other critical systemic challenges. The scope and complexity of issues and efforts necessitate a whole organization approach to sustainability, leveraging the combined competencies of multiple functions and disciplines. Here are just a few examples of how departments across companies are engaging on climate resilience:

  • A dramatically expanded approach to enterprise risk management, with participation from strategic planning, is critical to development and acceptance of an expended approach to risk assessment/management.
  • Operations and transport/logistics teams assess vulnerability across company-owned operations and networks, while global supply chain and procurement organizations do the same for key input providers, and these departments will be the owners of programs and partnerships to address their respective vulnerabilities.
  • Public affairs and government relations teams evaluate climate-related regulatory and policy risks and determine how best to address them in the context of companies’ overall public policy objectives.
  • The human resources team develops enhancements to workplace policies, training, and capability-building.
  • A company’s foundation identifies how to allocate resources and pursue partnerships key to the implementation of the resilience strategy.

What does this mean for CSOs and sustainability teams?

Sustainability leaders and their teams will play important roles in enabling other parts of the business, both internally through cross-functional work and externally via significantly greater collaboration and advocacy. In order to do this, however, most sustainability teams will need to increase their focus on organizational change and capability-building.

Sustainability teams will also need to leverage their external engagement and relationships with unusual actors to help other departments spot trends and proactively respond to issues as they arise. They will be called upon to incubate new public-private projects and partnerships, too—sometimes in conjunction with their company foundations. The UN Sustainable Development Goals in particular can serve as a vehicle for sustainability teams to build coalitions around key issues and priorities for the organization.

The bottom line: Sustainability departments need to embrace and promote a spirit of “radical collaboration” if they are to achieve their objectives in a rapidly changing environment.

Join us to continue the conversation on how business leads at the BSR Conference 2017 in Huntington Beach, California, from October 22-24.

This week, we are featuring several blog posts about the role of collaboration in shaping our climate future. Follow @BSRnews on Twitter for updates from Global Goals Week and Climate Week NYC; see our recent blog post for the full list of where we’ll be.

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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