Trust and collaboration should be at the heart of brand sustainability, says Collectively

Companies seeking to engage with increasingly aware consumers on matters regarding sustainability should do so through trust building "exercises" of transparency and humility, while also reaching out to grasp the "huge benefits" of collaboration.

That is the view of the chief executive of collaborative organisation Collectively, Will Gardner, who claimed that a rise in media attention aimed at corporate sustainability was creating a level of “healthy cynicism” amongst consumers who are now better equipped to see through brand messages and examine the crux of business action.

The prominence of celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his War on Waste series has been followed by a host of exposés regarding ocean waste and modern slavery in supply chains. For Gardner, these cross-sector issues have strengthened the need for collaboration, but also creates an opportunity for businesses to establish meaningful CSR commitments through the “success stories” that arise through media campaigns.

“It feels as if some campaigning precedes the work of retailers in rolling their sleeves up and getting involved,” Gardner said. “But I think the value of storytelling is before, during and after these media campaigns. It can work in advance of collaborative action to raise the issue on the agenda, and the public feels motivation about it and the companies will grow concerned and realise that now is the moment to act because it is in the public eye.

“It is great for the media to keep the pressure on as the work is being done and use storytelling to amplify and heighten some of the successes once they are ready to be talked about. Companies now realise that the default starting point for young consumers is a kind of healthy cynicism about corporate action in the sustainability field.

“When, as a brand, you start with a trust deficit you need to work particularly hard to engage a young audience. On one hand, this is a trust building exercise about transparency and humility, but on the other hand it’s about engagement and making the stories exciting and relevant and often this is about distributing a story that is relevant and interesting as it will cut through rather more.”

Gardner’s advice about using the campaigns to create and spread holistic change throughout a sector is already evident amongst high-street coffee chains. After a recent War on Waste episode highlighted the controversies around retailers and ‘fully-recyclable’ coffee cups, two of the biggest brands in that sector, Starbucks and Costa, have gone to great lengths to not only rectify the issue, but enhance the solutions further.

Both of the high-street chains are a part of the Paper Cup Manifesto, a collaborative platform aiming to significantly increase paper cup recovery and recycling rates by 2020. The manifesto has attracted more than 30 signatures, including McDonald’s as well as the aforementioned brands, and for Gardner it is the collaborative measures that can truly drive needed change – but only if all members involved realise they are working towards the same shared goal.

Shared purpose

Collectively already works with more than 28 corporate partners – including Unilever, Google, Coca-Cola and M&S – with a collective annual turnover of $610bn. The firm has been using “collaboration labs” in an attempt to get companies to sit down and talk to generations and millennials about key social and corporate issues.

Gardner has experienced first-hand some of the teething issues that arise when collaborations reach-out towards a large number of companies, with varying levels of commitments and ideal outcomes in the collaborations acting as a barrier to cross-sector evolution. For Gardner, collaborations can only thrive if a “specific shared purpose” is established at the beginning of any partnership.

“Collaboration is always more difficult than going it alone,” Gardner said. “But there are huge benefits from collaborating in that you can achieve a lot more. However, every partner is coming in with a slightly differing set of assumptions and specifications which then means you need to work a little bit harder to keep an initiative on the road and not allow it to be eroded by the differing expectations of those involved.

“You’ve got to make sure that you establish up-front a really strong and specific shared goal purpose, and make sure that the different parties are very clear about their expectations. Once you’re sure these can be delivered, just relationship build like crazy to reinforce the spirit of collaboration so that partners feel able to contribute and co-design as opposed to it being a very transactional ‘what do we get out of this?’ relationship.”

Gardner revealed that many of the collaborations tailored towards sustainability are more supply-side orientated – such as the efforts to improve palm oil certification – and usually lack a “public face” to place the issue into the spotlight. He claimed that if big corporates begin to actively get involved in these issues, and share it as a story, an increased demand for sustainability in those areas will be sought for by the public.

edie’s Sustainability Leadership month and Sustainability Leaders Forum

The month of December sees edie shift the editorial spotlight from skills to leadership, ahead of the Sustainability Leaders Forum in London on 25-26 January 2017 (find out more and register to attend here). Will Gardner will be speaking at the Forum about managing differences when collaborating to achieve audacious goals.

Taking the conversation beyond the operational, this month is dedicated to the leading edge of sustainability thinking. We’ll meet the organisations and the individuals that are driving the agenda forward, discuss the hot topics that are keeping the UK’s chief sustainability officer’s awake and night, and showcase some of the suppliers and technologies that are driving the green industrial revolution.

Read all of edie’s sustainability leadership content here.

Matt Mace

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