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Shawn Mak

Sustainability partnerships: Your how-to guide for success

Green consumerism is reaching fever pitch. According to Wunderman Thompson, 86% of consumers today expect businesses to play their part in solving challenges like climate change and social justice. It’s no wonder brands are now frantically racing each other, the clock and the climate, to do good, and look good. But unless you’re a Fortune 500 company, you’re likely struggling to make the impact you hope to make or are now expected to make. Enter sustainability partnerships.

Let’s face it, most brands today have some element of sustainability in their brand strategy: Whether ESG (environmental, social, governance), DEI (diversity, equality, inclusion), or any combination thereof. You’re probably one of them. It’s the only way to not get left behind. But sustainability is an expansive topic. Even a single alphabet in ESG and DEI requires Herculean effort to pull off and see through. And some brands are doing it more successfully than others.

Where do you stand in this weighty equation?

Why brands are now all in on sustainability partnerships

Sustainability partnerships are basically partnerships that involve 2 or more businesses teaming up for mutual benefits related to sustainability goals. It could be for positive environmental impact or social impact. Or both. Based on the sort of impact they’d like to make, brands may find themselves seeking like-minded companies and organisations, whether for a fling or serious relationship.

Why? Consumer expectations aside, brands recognise that when they reduce their carbon footprint or whip their “S” into shape, the results not only bolster brand reputation but also improve shareholder performance. The more successful ones have even seen gains in operations, staff engagement and financial performance. At the 2022 Asia Tech conference in Singapore, the message was clear: Sustainability is profitability. What’s not to like?

The reality check

Unfortunately, sustainability requires collective action. It’s not something you can go at it alone. Individual companies can yield only limited impact: Most do not have sufficient resources, knowledge, skill, scale or efficiencies to tackle such big issues on their own. Not to mention, some issues are systemic. And those require a chorus and coalition. It is therefore only a matter of time before brands wake up and join forces. It’s the quicker way to accelerate change, scale impact and create value.

While sustainability partnerships are now the flavour of the month, they are notoriously difficult to build, challenging to sustain and even harder to scale. As most divorced couples will tell you, it’s easy to get married, but it’s difficult to stay married. Likewise, brands that enter into sustainability partnerships without the proper footing may find themselves in a world of pain.

How to do sustainability partnerships (and the world) right

Sustainability partnerships are a valuable tool to drive change toward more responsible, inclusive and sustainable growth. This is because by combining the capacity and firepower of multiple parties, you can do more and effect more. You may then be wondering, “Great, I’m in…. Where do I start?”

1. Start with your purpose

We’ve established that you probably already have some form of sustainability in your brand or corporate strategy. The trick now is to make sure that strategy does not circle profit but purpose. After all, a brand’s purpose is not about making money. (That’s organisational.) Instead, a brand’s purpose is about what its audience holds dear, and how the brand can meet those values and desires. Basically, it’s why you do what you do.

Most strategists would caution brands against just planting their purpose flag on what’s trending on Twitter, and that’s wise counsel. Rather, you’d want to plant it on a cause (or a few) that you and your audience are genuinely passionate about. What’s the impact you want to make? Whatever it is, it must be something you truly believe in and can see through. Is it about social justice? Or to support the natural state of our environment? Maybe to fight identity prejudice? Or to level the playing field for small businesses? Whatever it is, discover it, own it and commit to it.

2. Define your reason for sustainability partnerships

With your purpose pinned, you will then want to work out why you want to get hitched. Is it for reach? Legitimacy and credibility? Or stronger advocacy? Perhaps it’s to develop a product or service innovation? Maybe to share proprietary knowledge? Or engage employees?

You would want to approach this conversation from multiple fronts. Start by looking at it from the outside in, and from the inside out: What do consumers expect from you as a brand and what do you expect of yourselves as an organisation? In other words, define your whys.

Next, examine your hows. This means considering the gap and opportunity: What’s preventing you from getting to your green and/or rainbow destination? And what’s the opportunity to bridge inside and out?

Then think about what kind of partner can fill those gaps and opportunities. It should be one that aligns with your purpose and partnership goal.

3. Look for kindred spirits: Research, research, research

Sustainability partnerships can take many forms. Here are some common ones. Which one’s right for you?

  • With competitors: Some brands set aside differences to meet a common target. These work on the basis of mutual gain derived from combined resources and scale. You leverage each other’s communications channels to get the message out to more people without doubling down on advertising budgets.
  • Cross industry: Some companies seek out brands from a different sector. Doing so not only helps them extend reach into new segments, but also allows brands with different expertise to amalgamate a greater repertoire of knowledge and capabilities to do more. Diverse brands can combine insights and strengths to tackle complex problems or come up with innovative solutions together.
  • With suppliers: Many conversations around ESG circle supply chains. This follows increased public scrutiny on product carbon footprint. As a consequence, brands are examining their relationship with suppliers, and seeking out those that can help meet their decarbonisation and DEI goals.
  • With investors: These apply mostly to start-ups that need cash infusion to fund operations, innovations, or market penetration.
  • With governments/NGOs: Consider these if you need to understand a topic more deeply, for they have expertise that you may not. Besides, they make great sustainability partners also because they can offer access, legitimacy and credibility.
  • Community: Special interest/advocacy groups and KOLs can be partners too. They can connect you to audience and influence. You can have them consult on solutions; or be a springboard to understand the challenge to more accurately orientate your solution.

4. Put together a compelling pitch

When approaching brands for sustainability partnerships you must pitch your right-to-win: Why are you in the best position to do this, and what do you have to offer in the relationship? In other words, why should they partner you and not others? Then offer a vision of where you think they can come in, and how.

Be prepared to share the societal and/or environmental benefits, relevance and envisioned outcomes of what you want to do. For a compelling pitch, don’t simply cite UN SDG goals (you know, the ones with the numbers and coloured blocks). Go beyond broad statements and intent. Think about specific targets and KPIs. Back it up with data. The more tangible you make it, the more credible you will come across.

Now’s a good chance to demonstrate to your prospective partner that sustainability is a conversation beyond your marketing department. Talk about how your business is/has been/will be sustainable. This way, you come across sincere, passionate and authentic.

Speaking of sincerity, make sure you have the correct representation at critical meetings. Bring out senior firepower. When they know that it’s worth your senior leaders’ time, they’ll know that it’s worth theirs.

5. Discuss the depth and tone of the partnership

Consumers today know when you’re being serious about sustainability and when you’re just green- or rainbow-washing. Whichever partner you want to work with, make sure to research their reputation for brand safety. Ensure their values match up and there’s genuine interest and commitment too. And that they’re not in it just for PR.

Therefore, when negotiating sustainability partnerships, go beyond superficial or transactional arrangements (e.g., buying media space or database to push your sustainability messages; or running a promotional giveaway in the name of climate change…and then end at that). Know that sustainability partnerships that prioritise integration and transformation are more meaningful, impactful and valued. Move your conversations into this space.

Then talk about who from each other’s organisation will be involved. Successful sustainability partnerships must start at the top. This means not just garnering senior management buy-in, but for them to actively build a culture for such partnerships to thrive. In other words, leaders must be willing to mobilise, inspire and galvanise staff involvement. Already some leaders are starting to link an employee’s pay to their ESG efforts and targets, and this HR trend is gaining traction and growing in popularity. This ought to spell good news to those seeking sustainability partnerships: It will become easier and easier to get people involved.

Here’s a good juncture to discuss also goals and desired outcomes. Think about what success looks like. What is the destination that both parties can agree on? Make it measurable. But besides gunning for those big fat hairy goals, it’s beneficial to also set intermediate ones. Not merely because life and culture now moves at the speed of light and warrants continued optimisation of anything and everything we do, but because setting mid-point goals can help measure progress and boost motivation for all involved.

6. Make your resources available

Make good on your promises and be prepared to put some skin into the game when you enter into sustainability partnerships. That means being honest and transparent on how much effort, time and resources you’re willing to put into the arrangement.

For some organisations, this could mean forming a task force with key stakeholders (and budget set aside). The taskforce can comprise a strategic cross-section of employees representing different departments  involved. In some cases, it may even incl. an external consultant or 2.  Strive to understand the caliber of the assembled resources as well. It should match up to the partner’s expectation. Whatever shape this task force takes, imagine how it will look to the other party. It should signal commitment, conviction and intention.

7. Clearly spell out the rules of engagement

Professional partnerships have little room for flip-flopping. It’s perfectly acceptable to draw up a contract. The bigger the stakes, the greater the need for a legally binding agreement. If you’re jointly developing a campaign, programme, product or service, ensure clarity in things like IP ownership. Make provisos also for items like timelines, human capital, financial investment, meeting cadences, advertising commitments on both sides. Clearly state the who, what, when, where and hows.

Now, even as you focus on governing principles and obligations for a successful sustainability partnership, remember to not neglect its destination. Do a bit of scenario planning: When you’ve reached the target, what’s next?; conversely, if you don’t reach it, what then? It’s important to agree on what the exit looks like, because nobody likes a messy custody battle.

Bottomline: Gun for the green line

Today, a company’s focus is no longer about the top line or bottomline. It’s about the greenline. Brands that understand this agenda and align their activities will reap business and reputation benefits. However, with a challenge as complex as sustainability, brands are hard-pressed to manage it alone. For it takes collective action, cooperation and, of course, massive amounts of control and coordination.

And if all of this sounds overwhelming or daunting, engage a professional. They can bring updated knowledge, connections and efficiency to the table. They can lubricate the process, and help get you to the starting line faster. As Dylan says, “Times, they are a-changing”. And there’s really not much of it left to waste.

This article incl. contributions from senior leaders managing strategic partnerships in both the public and private sectors, one at an international consulting firm, the other at a statutory board.