Until recently, most executives laughed at the idea of collaborating with the competition to drive change. However, if there is anything that the global healthcare crisis, economic slowdown, and environmental distress have taught us, it is that, in the words of Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed from the United Nations, “No one is safe until everyone is safe.”
Collective ownership is an important step on the journey of de-individualizing sustainability and co-managing the bigger problems faced by the Earth, its population, people, and businesses. Starting with purpose and building a collective response strategy lets everybody gain, thus combating the “tragedy of the commons”.
But if the benefits of collaboration are so clear, why do companies find it so difficult to collaborate? What is it that needs to be done to help rethink the role of competition?
1. Build a Foundation of Confidence and Openness
Companies, large or small, can come together to address problems of scale – once reserved for the attention of governments – to conceive solutions with a cross-industry perspective. Such a strategy requires close investigation of the entire value chain drivers and inter-organizational cooperation.
We must be prepared to let the outside world in.
An excellent example of one such collaboration addresses the sourcing of conflict minerals which include raw materials such as gold, tungsten, tantalum, and tin – all of which are sourced from militia-controlled mines in the troubled Democratic Republic of Congo. Responsible Minerals Initiative is an industry-wide collaboration designed to help its 400 member companies make responsible sourcing decisions and improve regulatory compliance while sourcing minerals from these conflict-affected and high-risk areas.
2. Start with Trust, Integrity, and an Honest Analysis of Existing Capabilities
Real work in the sustainability area requires intellectual energy, management time, and a mindset shift from the old paradigm where competitors are viewed as enemies to them being allies in a greater cause. The reality that companies will inevitably have to face is that driving sustainable change demands collective ownership to yield collective benefits for a greener planet.
It was only when Greenpeace asked Adidas if they were testing wastewater at their suppliers when leaders at Adidas confessed that they did not have a clue. Seven years after the launch of the “Detox my Fashion” campaign by Greenpeace, companies representing around 15% of global clothing production have made significant progress in phasing out chemicals from their production lines. A tough industry-wide response that was equally troublesome and grueling started with mutual trust and honest analysis with a vision to collectively move existing risks into opportunities.
3. Identify a Non-Corporate Entity that can Act as a Neutralizer
Long established rivalries, different cultures, and even anti-trust issues make it much safer to meet on a neutral ground provided by a facilitator.
A couple of years ago, UK’s major food retailers met at a university engineering department to talk about reducing emissions that are released when manufacturing materials for shops or when fitting out retail units. Yet, it was only when they altogether made the collective decision to meet on common ground through a neutral facilitator and place sustainability in a pre-competitive space that retailers started opening up to each other.
In the words of Unilever’s former CEO Paul Polman: “The issues we face are so big and the targets are so challenging that we cannot do it alone. When you look at any issue, such as food or water scarcity, it is very clear that no individual institution, government, or company can provide the solution.”
However, it is important to consider if a private forum with a neutralizer is the best way to bring every organization and all those different goals and ideas together. Often, increased corporate awareness and the drive to meet “higher purpose” has seen formations of groups such as the Consumer Goods Forum – where companies can opt to join subgroups dealing with deforestation, reforestation, waste, environmental impact measurement, and other social issues so that they can collectively tackle the issue.
Thus, identifying an appropriate pathway should be done only after a close investigation of the issues that the company aims to tackle.
True leadership in turbulent times is about having the vision and fortitude to establish a new vision and setting direction as to how to achieve it. The only way we can foster change on the scale required is to take collective ownership of and share responsibility for the planet and its future.
Based on interviews with 25 global multinational corporations as well as employees, middle managers, and senior leaders across multiple sectors, this is the first book to connect sustainability to the theory and principles of psychological ownership and to propose a succinct, easy-to-digest model of managerial use.
This article has also been featured on CB Bhattacharya’s LinkedIn page.