Published in Partnership with Forbes
- Today, right now, more and more of the biggest companies in the world see their ecological footprint in the context of a finite planet with dwindling natural resources – and that has become the focus of not only their corporate sustainability efforts and philanthropic initatives, but also, in some cases, their corporate ethos.
- No single organization is able to guarantee a long-term supply of raw materials into the future. This is a shared challenge that will require shared solutions, and forward-thinking companies are realizing this imperative and what’s at stake.
- We have sought to define a gold standard for business/NGO partnerships and combine the strengths of each organization with a focus on shared values. And most importantly, ensure that organizations believe strongly in a core principle of gold-standard partnerships from the beginning – you can only manage what you measure. For WWF and Coca-Cola, that meant collaborative teams that met weekly for years that hashed out and committed to hard targets around water efficiency and carbon emissions.
Twenty years ago, corporate sustainability programs were about reducing energy use in stores or cutting down on waste. The primary objective was reputation improvement. Engagement with NGOs, if it was part of the equation at all, was only philanthropic.
But this sort of passive engagement increasingly gives way to an entirely new business model – for leading corporate entities and nonprofits.
Doing good has become good for business. And its time that the laggards took notice.
Nature has its limits. Humanity’s growing appetite is fueling an impending natural resource catastrophe. The math of the planet is simple: as our population grows from 7 billion to 9 billion, we are currently using the equivalent of one and a half planets’ worth of resources each year to produce the goods and services our lifestyles demand. We are exceeding the planet’s capacity to sustain us and spending beyond our means.
But the good news is that today, right now, more and more of the biggest companies in the world see their ecological footprint in the context of a finite planet with dwindling natural resources – and that has become the focus of not only their corporate sustainability efforts and philanthropic initiatives, but also, in some cases, their corporate ethos.
Moving From CSR to SRC
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) isn’t enough anymore. Socially Responsible Corporations (SRC) is the new CSR. Smart companies are shifting to SRC and building sustainability into the very core of their business models. Because when they look at the biggest threats to their long-term business success, climate change and resource scarcity are at the top of the list.
No single organization is able to guarantee a long-term supply of raw materials into the future. This is a shared challenge that will require shared solutions, and forward-thinking companies are realizing this imperative and what’s at stake. Moreover, they are realizing no one has all the answers. That’s why you’re seeing more and more corporate-NGO relationships form, and why companies are investing more money in supply chain innovations than philanthropy.
For example, when the two of us brought WWF and Coca-Cola together in 2005 we discovered a mutually beneficial relationship. WWF was able to provide an on-the-ground view into Coca-Cola’s supply chain – something the company never had before. And Coca-Cola was able to leverage its market influence to reduce the environmental impacts of the commodities it sources, in places WWF was working to conserve.
It may seem trite or even too easy to say we couldn’t be successful without each other. But the world has reached a reality point we can no longer ignore. We have no choice but to work together. There is more than one horseman in the apocalypse of our planet. We need to address not only climate change, an undergirding factor in every decision our organizations make, but we also need to address resource scarcity, because in the short term converting land for commodity production delivers a devastating set of multiple impacts when you measure carbon emitted, livelihoods affected and habitat destroyed.
Taking the Long View
For WWF, we see few other substitutes for the right regulatory frameworks– to put a price on carbon, or to shut down illegal trade in species. But we can no longer completely rely on government policies. By necessity we pursue a more nuanced approach, particularly when you consider the limits of 2, 4 and 6 year election cycles and the corresponding willingness to solve longer-term problems.
By contrast, smart companies are looking 20, 30, even 50 years down the road and realizing that when it comes to raw materials, the supply/demand ratio looks grim. To remain profitable, they realize that meeting growing consumer demand for food and products is going to require a comprehensive strategy to manage resources sustainably. And the strategy can’t be theirs alone.
So we believe that in order to successfully bring the planet back in balance, the private sector needs to play a leading role – in partnership with NGOs, local communities and other stakeholders and governments. It is at the intersection of these sectors where sustainability will be defined and implemented in the years ahead.
Setting the Gold Standard
We have sought to define a gold standard for business/NGO partnerships and combine the strengths of each organization with a focus on shared values. And most importantly, ensure that organizations believe strongly in a core principle of gold-standard partnerships from the beginning – you can only manage what you measure.
For WWF and Coca-Cola, that meant collaborative teams that met weekly for years, and hashed out and committed to hard targets around water efficiency and carbon emissions. By the end of 2012, The Coca-Cola Company had improved water efficiency by 20 percent across its system compared to the 2004 baseline. This enabled a more productive and efficient business, stronger relationships and reputation within the communities it operates and countless new business opportunities.
Having met these initial goals, some businesses might have stopped there. But under CEO and Chairman Muhtar Kent’s leadership, Coca-Cola is now doubling down on those initial targets and expanding its sustainability efforts across the board.
This leadership reinforces the notion that doing good – while certainly the right thing to do, especially as it relates to natural resource stewardship – is also good for business’ bottom line.
Most consumers want to be part of solving the big problems the world faces, like climate change and resource scarcity, and now more than ever, they’re more mindful of the products they buy and looking behind a brand to see what it stands for is often the first place they’ll start. This is particularly true in places like China and India where populations feel more keenly the impacts of resource scarcity and climate change. So engagement on these issues helps define what the consumer relationship is about.
Surviving Shared Pain
Instituting a transformational shift towards sustainability requires real commitment across the board and it starts with creating an internal, cultural movement within – both for companies and NGOs. It isn’t always an easy sell. WWF and Coca-Cola faced challenges on this front, but at the end of the day, building a case for forging this type of a relationship is critical for both sectors to survive. Using the power of the marketplace to leverage change on the ground is conservation in the 21st century — that’s something we can all get behind. And the common denominator we all share and must work together to overcome?
Pain for corporations who don’t take seriously the need to assess their footprint, measure their consumption and develop a path to sustainability. Pain for nonprofits that work tirelessly for decades to protect species and habitat but see that progress evaporate if they avoid the larger drivers of global change. And most importantly, pain for the planet – and all who call it home – if we can’t work together to repair what we, collectively, have destroyed.
Noted theologian John Wesley held this as his mantra: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” And when corporations and NGOs collaborate on long-term, rigorous, innovative partnerships designed to re-align the balance of the planet, it helps bring Wesley’s mantra to life.