Farther, faster, together: Putting competitiveness aside to accelerate sustainable transformation

Industry alliance, pre-competitive consortium, cross-sector partnership… whatever you call it, joining forces with peers to problem-solve builds beyond just a “feel good” club. By collaborating with competitors to tackle shared sustainability challenges, businesses have an opportunity to lead their industry forward — or face the risk of falling short on meeting their goals.

Forward-thinking companies set on securing resilience in a disruptive future know that sustainability is a business imperative. And they recognize that delivering on commitments is a heavier lift than what a single company can carry. It will take all hands on deck to transform entire supply chains, industries and markets. While it may feel like going against the very tenets of business, leading companies are conjuring up courage to get comfortable with competitors.

Let’s dig into the benefits of industry collaboration done right and why it’s more than a nice-to-have for businesses who are serious about sustainable transformation.

Collaborative Initiatives sustainable transformation

In collaboration comes the potential for real transformation.

Putting all the players on the same team

The most pressing issues in sustainability are often the most complex and difficult to get right. From product and packaging innovation to regenerative agriculture; water stewardship to land-use change, there are a number of areas that, when tackled collectively, become much less daunting. 

Companies and their needs are as unique as individuals, yet the challenges they face are similar. When we approach a problem from a single perspective, we’re doing so with only half of our toolset. Industry collaboration serves as a platform for streamlining the diverse tactics to solve these systemic problems and pooling efforts and resources to push the industry forward as a whole. While sustainability practitioners may already informally compare notes with their counterparts, official partnerships and collectives formalize these collaborations — bringing solutions to the surface faster and making it easier to scale them. What’s more, they provide a venue to put all relevant stakeholders at the table.

Collaborative initiatives bring the added benefit of using herd mentality as a force for good. Setting up industry or multi-stakeholder initiatives makes it easier to bring additional players on board, with a ripple effect that pressures stragglers to up their sustainability game, too. And widening the scope to bring NGOs and scientific institutions into the fold can help boost the expertise and credibility of the collaboration — which is essential for communications down the line — and unlock opportunities for the entire ecosystem. Banding together, organizations can accomplish much more and on a larger scale than they could alone — and minimize the cost of doing so.

Forget reinventing the wheel alone — leapfrog to action

Given the shared nature of environmental challenges and the complexity of the supply chains in which they exist, companies are recognizing the potential to fill gaps collectively. Through a diverse, big-picture strategy that fosters proximity, collaboration enables stakeholders across the value chain to identify and prioritize the most prevalent shared pain points. From there, the stage is set for harmonized action on a large scale. 

Silos stifle innovation and create duplicated efforts to reach the same goal. Rather than focusing on their own individual needs, companies can band together to overcome shared obstacles, creating universal tools, frameworks and methodologies that can be applied widely by a diverse range of stakeholders, effectively leveling the playing field for industry players and driving action where it matters most

With such clarity and focus, it becomes easier to build engagement across the entire value chain — among suppliers, manufacturers and producers. Working from a common framework, downstream actors can build stronger business cases for investing in the infrastructure, technology or processes needed to drive and respond to collective transformation.

The Science Based Targets Network — a group of more than 45 experts from business associations, consultancies and NGOs working to set targets to enable companies to operate within planetary boundaries — is a good example of what putting these principles into practice looks like. And companies are collaborating on issues specific to their respective sectors as well. Take packaging for example. In the cosmetics industry alone, an estimated 120 billion units of packaging is produced every year (much of which is not recyclable), according to Zero Waste Europe. In May 2018, Quantis co-founded the Sustainable Packaging Initiative for CosmEtics (SPICE) with L’Oréal, bringing together beauty brands across the globe around a common goal. Together, SPICE partners launched an ecodesign tool to support resilient decision-making and improve the environmental performance of the entire packaging value chain.

At Quantis, we’ve witnessed collaboration catalyze a number of industry solutions: from leveraging satellite imagery for better agricultural data with geoFootprint, to the pioneering Plastic Leak Project Guidelines; streamlined ICT footprinting through PAIA, to a common sustainable finance tool with NECi and more. Inside and outside our walls, we’ve seen initiatives like these multiply at lightning speed over the past decade — and we don’t anticipate the trend slowing down anytime soon.

Filling the knowledge gap

“What gets measured gets managed” takes on a whole new meaning when an entire sector is involved. The deeper we can go with the data, the clearer the path forward becomes. Comprehensive data is critical to improve decision-making and lays the foundation for intelligent sustainability strategies. Without it, teams are just taking shots in the dark. Industry collaboration offers an avenue to build robust databases that can both boost organizations’ own sustainability efforts and open up new opportunities for sector-wide engagement.

The World Food LCA Database (WFLDB) arose out of increasing demand from key players in the agro-food sector, such as Nestlé and Mars, for more reliable data on food products and processes to optimize environmental performance. Similarly, Quantis and a consortium of leading organizations from the apparel and footwear sector, including Hugo Boss and Oeko-Tex, founded the World Apparel and Footwear Life Cycle Assessment Database (WALDB) to generate credible data on the environmental impacts of supply chains.

Quality — not just quantity

Shared risks and responsibilities require a collective response to drive real and meaningful change — fast. But the point isn’t to see more and more groups emerge without a clear value-add to what exists already — and companies shouldn’t seek them out for publicity or in a race to rack up as many initiatives as they can. But companies that aren’t part of one should get curious about those that exist — looking to where they can best contribute and maximize their impact. With sustainability starting to take center stage in business, it’s important that a spike in collaboration doesn’t come with a dip in accountability. Ensuring good governance and member adherence to the objectives and requirements of the initiative are factors that often determine its success and credibility. So don’t just join any group — join with intention and stick around after the initial fanfare and cameras are gone. More importantly, make sure you’re an active member that delivers on commitments.

Given the abundance of collaborative initiatives today, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. Be sure your priorities are clear — based on your company’s biggest challenges and environmental hotpots, as well as what the science calls for. Talk to us to understand where to focus your efforts and which collaborative opportunities will truly help you move the needle.