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Report: Despite Pessimism, Government Collaborations Key to Sustainable Future

Despite world leaders’ inability or unwillingness to forge binding agreements at two global conferences this year, a majority of experts in a recent GlobalScan/SustinAbility survey say government remains a key player in the most effective collaborations to improve sustainability.

Companies must engage and collaborate with government to facilitate pro-sustainability public policy, according to 58 percent of the nearly 800 sustainability professionals who responded to the September 2012 poll of corporations, NGOs, academics, research, government and service organizations.

But in light of the pessimism following disappointing outcomes from conferences in Rio+20 conference in June and the eighteenth Conference of the Parties (COP-18) in Doha this month, only about half of those sustainability experts think companies will pursue collaborations with government in the coming year.

“There is this pessimism about governments and their inability to act on these important issues. But at the same time, government is absolutely critical to this whole debate,” said Frances Buckingham, a manager with consulting firm SustainAbility. Earlier surveys have found that pessimism about government has remained high over time, but the experts were clear that the most effective collaboration to improve sustainability involves companies and government.

Survey results were released four days after the conclusion of COP-18 in Doha. Following on the heels of the larger U.N. Conference on Sustainability held in Rio, COP-18 lacked big names and ended with only an extension of the Kyoto Protocol, which several of the world’s largest nations no longer observe and the U.S. never ratified.

The disconnect between the experts’ opinion that government-to-business collaboration is most effective (58 percent) and their prediction that a comparatively small number of businesses will collaborate with government (30 percent) left GlobeScan/SustainAbility unsure how companies will approach public policy change in the future.

“I think that’s one of the big barriers [to improving public policy]: Engaging governments in the right way,” Buckingham said.

Similarly, the experts pointed to a difference in the type of private partnerships that businesses are making and the ones that are most effective. Sixty-two percent find the company-to-NGO partnerships to be most common, but multi-company, multi-industry collaborations are the most successful, they said.

While respondents favored collaboration, their reasons were somewhat different. Sharing or reducing costs was the least favored benefit for businesses, NGOs, governments and others to work together. Nearly half cited gaining access to expertise or perspectives and reducing risk as a reason to work together.

The experts predicted that several types of partnerships will be more common over the next five years, including those between a single company and NGO; multiple companies in the same industry; multi-company, multi-industry groups; company-to-company; and multi-actor collaborations.

No matter the players, the most effective forms of partnership are those that focus in on a single issue or purpose, rather than those that seek to address a broader set of topics, according to the report.

Along with government-to-business collaboration, SustainAbility has begun to study specific examples of successful business-to-business partnerships to see if lessons translate to other businesses.

“There are two areas that need exploring: Competitive companies working together and companies working with government,” Buckingham said.

In the coming months, SustainAbility will study specific examples of collaboration, including Starbucks working with Conservation International, and a partnership between Ford and Toyota.

“We want to explore what’s working well, and what has failed, what are the barriers or road blocks. We are trying to provide some guidance for businesses going forward,” Buckingham said.

In business-to-business collaboration, SustainAbility will look at the year-old collaboration between Ford and Toyota to produce hybrid technology for light pickup trucks. While the competitors will work together to develop the technology, they will integrate the new system in future vehicles separately.

“The survey makes the point that there is the nuance between when to collaborate and when to compete,” Buckingham said. “Certainly collaboration is good, but that element of competition also is good for the development of innovation.”

Looking at a more traditional NGO-business partnership, SustainAbility will consider Starbucks and Conservation International, which have worked together since 1998 and for the last five years to combat global climate change by promoting shade-grown coffee to preserve forests. The two also rolled out a recycling plan a year ago that stretches beyond the walls of each Starbucks store to make commercial recycling more assessable in cities.

“Starbucks’ project is reaching a point where they need to engage the local governments, and that is interesting,” Buckingham said.

While survey respondents remain pessimistic about the commitment and effectiveness of some national governments, partnering with local and regional governments may be a stepping stone to effective collaborations with national governments.

“This pessimism is in the national government, but there are lots of different layers [to government],” Buckingham said. “We need to start unpacking what is government.”

Allison is an affiliate of New Growth Communications, for whom she recently blogged about “8 Communication Tips for Crowdfunding Campaigns.” She has 15 years of writing and editing experience for newspapers covering cleantech, business and health care. Add her… [Read more about Allison Floyd]

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