We now recognise that global sustainability challenges such as water stress, climate change and waste cannot be addressed by governments, businesses or NGOs acting alone. Companies are collaborating, not only with business partners, suppliers and customers, but also competitors, NGOs, public sector bodies, international agencies and academic institutions, to address social and environmental problems.

General corporate responsibility coalitions, such as Business in the Community in the UK have become common around the world in the past 20-30 years. They and several international coalitions such as Business for Social Responsibility and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development have made the case for responsible business.

More recently, these generalist coalitions have been supplemented by coalitions and multi-stakeholder initiatives focused on a particular industry, or on a specific issue such as water or human rights.

The Sustainable Shipping Initiative involves 19 companies from across the sector focused on uniting commercial growth with sustainable behaviours. Members have committed to report on sustainability performance; adopt a sustainability strategy that links to core business; and set clear reduction targets for environmental issues that are most material to their activities and make a positive social impact.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation co-ordinates the CE (Circular Economy) 100 network of companies and partners, addressing the challenges of switching from the old linear model of “take, make, use and waste”. Some collaborations are advocates of pro-sustainable development public policy.

Aviva Investors convened the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Coalition to influence the UN Rio+20 Sustainability Summit in 2012 in favour of greater reporting requirements for businesses on their social, environmental and economic impacts, and helped in shaping an EU directive on this topic.

In the UK, the Aldersgate Group involving businesses, NGOs and academia is promoting “An Economy That Works” agenda and lobbying the European Commission to produce a policy framework to advance the circular economy.

Several business representative organisations such as the Consumer Goods Council are facilitating collaboration for sustainability among their members.

Companies wishing to collaborate on sustainable development have no shortage of vehicles to work through. This number of choices can be daunting. Corporate sustainability leaders are in demand as “anchor members” for particular coalitions and initiatives. Companies, therefore, need to approach collaboration for sustainability in the same way as other potential partnerships. What are the objectives? Which forms of collaboration and what type of vehicle for it are most likely to be effective? Which organisation can best address this?

Collaborations fail for many reasons: unclear, conflicting, unrealistic goals; insufficient capacity to implement; or the absence of senior leadership and essential skills.

Developing the next generation of leaders with the ability to work across boundaries to tackle global challenges is a key priority.

As a first step, leading businesses could make some of their high-flyers, available to the coalitions on short-term secondments (executives on loan). Companies would thereby signal serious commitment to improving the environment for corporate responsibility and demonstrate their confidence in coalition working.

They would also signal their intention to invest in what McKinsey global managing director Dominic Barton has termed “tri-sector athletes” comfortable working across business, public sector and NGOs.

Corporate responsibility is integral to sustaining capitalism and collaborations must play a central role in achieving this goal.

As Al Gore said: “We must abandon the conceit that individual, isolated, private actions are the answer. They can and do help. But they will not take us far enough without collective action.

“Let us say together: ‘We have a purpose. We are many. For this purpose we will rise, and we will act.’”

David Grayson is director of the Doughty Centre for Corporate Responsibility at Cranfield School of Management

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