How to radically collaborate to achieve your sustainability ambitions

By Forster Communications

At the event we held in partnership with CAF recently, we explored how to use radical collaboration to deliver social and environmental change, and some of the key issues organisations experience along the way when trying to get such initiatives off the ground.

After hearing from Trewin Restorick, the serial social entrepreneur who has incubated huge numbers of collaborations and partnerships between businesses, charities and public sector bodies, we split the attendees into groups to work through a radical collaboration of their own, and these were some of the issues and insights that came to the surface.

1) Work out what radical means

Radical can mean different things to different organisations: pace, choice of partner, who you give voice to, how you share information, etc. What can feel business as usual for some feels radical to others. We sometimes conflate radical with big or dramatic, but it can equally apply to the radical act of trying to do something on a modest scale, or recognising that incremental change is more likely to succeed than attempting to deliver a huge shift.

Working with the World Benchmarking Alliance we’re helping bring together allies on climate action to add to existing research, rather than create something new, and call for change. Their latest collaboration with over 50 major global investors called on the oil and gas industry to plan for a just transition.

2) Overcome the dilemma of choice

How can net zero targets be achieved while also tackling the cost-of-living crisis? How do we protect livelihoods while resources become more and more scarce? There are less than seven years to realise the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And while ambitious targets have been set, the routes to achieving them have become increasingly complex.

When trying to decide where to focus efforts and assets you could go big, and look at tackling systemic changes, or hone in on something specific. Whatever you set your sights on, it must link back to your values as an organisation and build from there. Articulating why and setting a strong framework from the start should act as your north star and guide who and how you engage with along the way, and reduce the temptation to get involved in other issues, no matter how pressing you feel they might be.

3) Build the right offering

Who should you engage with and when? Customers can be a useful starting point and they give you insights that might help sell it to the board. In turn, this gives you a brilliant foundation – a story – for your engagement. Iceland’s Talking Shop, where customer-facing employees feed ideas to head office has resulted in a recent collaboration offering micro-loans for food shoppers to help fight food poverty.

If securing internal buy-in is your biggest challenge, start by finding and talking to any cynics. If you address their concerns and get them excited, they can become real allies further down the line. Those who you are seeking to affect must always be part of the initial research, and if their feedback means going back to the drawing board then your collaboration will only be stronger as a result.

4) Identify roadblocks

The road to delivering positive change is a long and winding one, with the odd cul-de-sac thrown in for good measure. Changing conditions and challenges will demand a level of flex and contingency. From the outset, recognise your barriers to progress and plan in time to adapt. Think beyond the obvious. Expect to be in a state of constant debate with your partners over what you’re trying to do. Allow time for backward and sideways steps as well as forwards. Devise how you will keep motivation up during the challenging bits. Be more resilient than Sainsbury’s were when they pulled the plug on a long-term project to fight food waste after its first pilot year fell short of targets, citing changing customer priorities.

5) Balance your enlightened self-interest

Most positive change comes through organisations acting in enlightened self-interest, but the balance between the enlightened element and the self-interest needs to be carefully delineated. A radical collaboration shouldn’t be primarily about seeking newspaper clippings or a nice halo effect. It must stem from a real desire to make change, not for performative radicalism or virtue signalling of the type we have seen recently from Brewdog.

Recognising that your organisation’s name may also be a barrier signals an opportunity to ‘white label’ your collaboration for greater impact. Patagonia’s work with the Albanian government to protect one of the last wild rivers in Europe was undertaken with them sitting firmly in the backseat. Its steadfast focus on desired outcome – conservation of the Vjosa River – and that alone, meets its mission of being “in business to save our home planet”.

You can read more insights from the workshop here and five key aspects that make a successful collaboration, with some great examples from our speaker Trewin Restorick, here.

If you would like to talk to us about your next idea for a radical collaboration, or collaborate with us then please get in touch.

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