‘No one can do it alone’: How can we create strong partnerships for sustainability?

EXCLUSIVE: The global response to Covid-19 has proven how businesses and other organisations can be agile and pivot to rapidly deliver solutions - often in partnership. edie asks Walgreens Boots Alliance's Una Kent how these learnings on collaboration can be applied across the sustainability space.

‘No one can do it alone’: How can we create strong partnerships for sustainability?

Hear from Una Kent at edie's Sustainability Leaders Forum in London this week

Speaking exclusively to edie ahead of her appearance at the Sustainability Leaders Forum (scroll down for details), Kent, the firm’s international vice-president for CSR, starts off by summarising: “the pandemic has thrown a huge spotlight on the need and power of collaboration and partnership… it has, without doubt, taught us what is possible when organisations, countries, governments, and business all come together to focus on a common goal. No one can [solve a global pandemic] alone”.

In the early days of the pandemic, headlines were filled with stories around distilleries, breweries and perfume makers switching production lines to make hand sanitiser. Other manufacturers, meanwhile, turned their attentions to PPE and ventilators. Later came news of new partnerships around responses to social issues that would clearly last some months, like the need for contact-free deliveries to the vulnerable.

Similarly, Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) responded by not only delivering testing and vaccines but by forging partnerships to help remediate some of the social issues that grew as a result of the pandemic.

For example, the retailer worked with the UK’s Home Office on a scheme enabling pharmacy visitors to discreetly report domestic abuse and access help, called ‘Ask ANI’. Similar programmes were also launched in Ireland and Chile. Pharmacies were notably classed as essential and allowed to remain open during lockdown restrictions in these geographies.

Elsewhere, recognising the impact of the pandemic on career development – which has proven more pronounced for women – WBA launched a string of initiatives to empower women in the workplace in the US and UK through its No7 brand. Partners included careers network AllBright, US-based equality services provider The Female Quotient and British educational charity The Female Lead.

Kent believes that learnings from Covid-19-related partnerships should “absolutely” help environmental sustainability professionals inform their future work.

A renewed focus on working together

Of course, partnerships have been a core part of many organisations’ sustainability strategies for years pre-pandemic. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), used by 1,500+ companies through the UN Global Compact alone, are underpinned by the 17th Goal – ‘Partnerships for the Goals’.

WBA is one of these companies. It pledged to support the SDGs shortly after their publication in 2015 and, between 2016 and 2018, the company mapped all targets and actions against all 17 Goals. WBA’s vice president for CSR Richard Ellis previously told edie that this activity had proven invaluable for aligning sustainability with profitability and for forging and scaling “meaningful, cross-sector partnerships”.

Since that interview with Ellis was conducted around three years ago, the scale of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges has only become clearer, thanks to improved science and an increased focus in the public, financial, business and policymaking spheres.

At the same time, partly due to the pandemic, it would be hard to argue that there has not been increased recognition of the ways in which these challenges – and, therefore, their solutions – are interconnected. With nations on the cusp of agreeing to new global biodiversity ambitions, the link between climate and nature is perhaps getting the most focus.

WBA, Kent explains, is best positioned to work at the intersections of climate and human health. She says: “The Lancet claimed that climate change is the biggest health crisis facing the world. It is responsible for extending inequities in a warming world where the risks posed by extreme weather events; infectious disease transmission; and food, water, and financial insecurity are overburdening the most vulnerable populations, denying them basic human access to healthcare, hygiene, and an essential aspect of good health.

WBA  recognises that other businesses are standing at this same intersection. Kent explains how it has continually worked with Bupa, GSK and Forum for the Future to help develop an approach to delivering a joined-up response to the climate-related health challenge from the private sector. This culminated in the publication of a new report at Climate Week NYC last September, outlining a roadmap for developing strategies that respond to both systemic challenges.

The ingredients of a meaningful partnership

Sadly, not all sustainability-related partnerships to have been forged before will have culminated successfully in a report, or with a programme launch. Many have launched, only to find the related programme or programmes short-lived and/or small-scale.

In a post-lockdown world, many firms are still striving to deliver their economic recovery from Covid-19. Moreover, sustainability teams are under increasing pressure to avoid greenwashing and deliver an ambitious and science-based response to the global crises at hand. While budgets and resources remain stretched at many SMEs, it has been said that teams in corporates are now expected to be “activators” for their boards, delivering responses to all manner of topics under pressure.

Both of these context factors mean that the pressure is on to avoid partnerships for partnerships’ sake. edie, therefore, asks Kent for her opinion on the key elements of a strong partnership.  She lists:

  1. Having agreed common perspectives and goals
  2. Ensuring all partners have a purpose-led mindset beyond profit
  3. Ensuring that the partnership is relevant to the company and to key stakeholders in local markets, including customers
  4. Putting a strong leadership team in place, using a good structure
  5. Equally distributing benefits resulting from the partnership
  6. Providing consistent updates on progress and responding accordingly when progress is off track

For Kent, the first two points are non-negotiable and form the foundations for the remaining four. She says: “The values a company brings to the table when establishing partnerships remain true regardless of focus. So long as they are centred in an agreed purpose and the role of each partner is well framed and understood.”

WBA, for example, lists its purpose as “creating a better world through health and wellness” and enabling “more joyful lives through better health”. It lists its four core values as “courageous, connected, committed and curious”.

Readers keen to learn how they can identify and prioritise their purpose are encouraged to read edie’s recent guest blog on the topic from Seismic’s co-founder and chief impact officer Amy Borbeau. That blog also summarises how purpose adoption can drive profitability and longevity, therefore providing handy advice for gaining buy-in.

Create solutions with Una Kent at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2022

edie’s biggest event of the year is returning as a live, in-person event for 2022. 

The Sustainability Leaders Forum will take place on 7, 8 and 9 March 2022, and will unite hundreds of professionals for inspiring keynotes, dynamic panel discussions, interactive workshops and facilitated networking. There will also be digital tickets.

Taking place at London’s Business Design Centre, the event will feature more than 60 speakers, including experts from Natural England, the Green Finance Institute, the World Economic Forum and the Centre for Climate Repair. We’re planning our most diverse and inspirational programme yet.

Click here for full information and to book your pass.

Una Kent is co-delivering a workshop on Day One of the Forum (8 March), at 1.30pm, on the topic of establishing meaningful partnerships to drive systemic change. She will be joined by experts from Earthwatch, Neighbourly, IHG Hotels & Resorts and Forum for the Future. 

Sarah George

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie