Managing Editor and Special Projects Manager, MIT Sloan Management Review
The practice of corporate sustainability is gradually shifting from isolated, opportunistic efforts to a more strategic—and potent—approach based on partnerships broad enough to include competitors, suppliers, governments, and NGOs.
Six out of ten executives whose companies participated in sustainability-related partnerships view these collaborations as quite or very successful. But collaboration is not common. Ninety percent of respondents recognized the importance of sustainability collaboration, but only 47 percent reported that their companies were actively collaborating.
Collaboration, while not yet the norm, has the potential to produce transformational results. More than half of the reported collaborations aspire to fundamentally change the market in which the business operates. These efforts are much less likely to be isolated projects, and much more likely to engage a company’s entire ecosystem, from suppliers to customers to governments and academic institutions.
Sustainability collaborations often bring together diverse stakeholders, and the research suggests that there is a learning curve for companies: the more collaborations a respondent’s company has engaged in, the more likely respondents are to rate their collaborations as successful. For example, among respondents whose organizations currently have one to three sustainability collaborations, 43 percent say these ventures are very or quite successful. Of those that have engaged in more than 50, 95 percent report the same degree of success.
The study also looked at board engagement as a driver of sustainability success. Overall, 86 percent of respondents believe that the board of directors should play a strong role in driving their company’s sustainability efforts. But only 42 percent of respondents see their boards as at least moderately engaged with the company’s sustainability agenda. This disconnect affects performance: in companies where boards are perceived as active supporters, 67 percent of respondents rate collaborations as very or quite successful. In companies where the board is not engaged, the reported rate of success is less than half that.
The study identified several ways to overcome the barriers to board participation. They include appointing members with sustainability expertise, creating an external advisory board, integrating sustainability into the duties of the overall board and its committees, and establishing a broader vision of the board as the steward of all stakeholders and managers of risk.
As a whole, the study finds progress in companies making the fundamental shift in how they organize themselves and how their boards of directors address the profound challenges and risks that issues of sustainability present. But it also indicates that many business leaders have some distance to go to understand that the path to sustainability success is best traveled with others.