The vaccine race has shown the scale of what companies can achieve when they put purpose ahead of profit, so how are businesses applying the same approach to sustainability?
If we have learnt one thing over the past year, it’s that when companies, investors and government put their heads together, change can happen very quickly. You only need to look at the development of the coronavirus vaccine for evidence, which is one of the most notable feats of technological innovation in modern history. It saw companies that would ordinarily view one another as competitors look beyond short-term profit and come together to solve an immediate threat to global health.
In this context, it’s clear that collaboration is a potent accelerator for progress, particularly when it comes to delivering change in solving other big global problems, such as hunger, mental health, literacy and climate change mitigation.
If anything, the pandemic has only increased the pressure on companies to collaborate for the greater good. “During the pandemic, we have seen businesses come together with a real sense of urgency to help those most impacted in their value chains and communities, from supporting cash-strapped suppliers to tackling the spike in gender-based violence,” says Zahid Torres-Rahman, co-founder and chief executive of Business Fights Poverty. “The pandemic has shown our interconnectedness and what we can achieve together.”
So have organisations further down this path learnt anything in the process? And how do those with experience see this trend shaping the future of social impact as a broader business practice?
For smaller, newer companies, such as Treepoints, an app that encourages users to offset their carbon emissions by earning “points” to spend with other companies, collaboration is at the heart of their business model.
“Our entire business model is predicated on collaborating with companies that want to be more sustainable,” says Anthony Collias, founder and chief executive of Treepoints. “You can forget how overwhelming the climate crisis can seem to businesses that have no experience of this sphere. We quickly realised that most people want to do good, they just don’t know where to start.
“We’re working on making it transparent, clear and straightforward for businesses of all sizes to have a positive impact.”
Financing and procurement are another area where collaboration between businesses is helping encourage brands to increase their social impact. A new government requirement, procurement policy note 06/20, which states that public contracts must factor social value into their proposals, is just one example of a concrete step being taken to ensure businesses are working with charities, NGOs and public bodies to make sure serving the community is a central part of their sustainability strategy.
It is a strategy also prevalent in some private sector investment companies, such as Archipelago Eco Investors, which focuses specifically on new and novel technology solutions in the plastics sector. They are working with businesses to accelerate innovation for social good.
“The fund plans to foster collaborative approaches between investors and investees, and enable an open and active relationship to develop technology and infrastructure rollout efficiently and effectively,” says Lucy Mortimer, partner at the fund. By doing so, Mortimer hopes to “catalyse further private sector investment by providing evidence of technology readiness and commercial bankability of new technologies”.
Joanna Jensen, founder and executive chairman of Childs Farm, a leading UK children’s toiletries brand, has found collaboration helpful in introducing new ideas for how to increase social impact.
“It’s so important to bring in the experts,” she says. “There is a steep learning curve in the world of social impact, but bringing in the right people pays dividends in the long term for your company and for the planet.”
Collaborating for Childs Farm has meant pushing out of their comfort zone and working with those who have more experience and can help them to notice blind spots and opportunities to improve.
“Our work with sustainability experts Planet Shine, for instance, meant we could broaden our perspectives and learn best practice from people who have gone before us on this journey,” says Jensen. This approach helped Childs Farm to become carbon neutral in 2020.
Many private sector companies have learnt the value of ramping up collaboration with charities in a bid to drive progress forward in their social impact efforts. As Siena Parker, head of creative responsibility at Penguin Random House UK, explains: “Charities and businesses working in partnership can provide vital levels of support in times of need and they can also drive more systemic and widespread positive change, which ultimately offers business benefits too.”
At Penguin, this has seen an increase in collaboration to help raise literacy, particularly among more disadvantaged communities, as well as helping to improve diversity in the literature taught in schools. “We see investing in this area as not just the right thing to do, but also a unique opportunity for us, both as a book publisher and a brand,” says Parker.
World beyond COVID
Looking ahead, one thing experts agree on is the renewed focus on sustainability and social impact that the pandemic has instigated isn’t going away. “Many people predicted the pandemic would overshadow the burgeoning interest in sustainability, but in fact the opposite is true,” says Jensen. “Business has a growing role in pushing for progress across society and I don’t see this trend changing any time soon.”
Torres-Rahman agrees. “We don’t see this energy dissipating. The businesses we speak to see this as an opportunity to rebuild better, to tackle the deep-seated inequalities the pandemic has laid bare,” he says.
“Businesses are stepping up and collaborating on social challenges not just because this is the right thing to do, but because it builds the resilience of their businesses and is increasingly expected by their employees, customers and shareholders.”
A readiness to collaborate with other organisations, whether competitors, charities or third-party organisations, will only multiply the impact a business can have in the community and is a trend likely to continue as we move towards the post-pandemic phase of recovery.
“Like so many things in business, collaborating with other organisations gives you a far greater impact than what you can do alone,” Jensen concludes. And what could be a worthier cause than making the world a better place to live in?