Sustainability – playing with the others


publication date 07/09/2023

SUSTAINABILITY challenges differ from traditional business challenges in their higher interdependence of goals and in requiring expertise, resources and capabilities that are often not owned by one business player alone.

Interdependencies are reflected in the triple bottom line. Companies are expected to generate profit, i.e., positive economic values, while at the same time creating positive environmental value and positive social value.

Similarly, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) identify 17 goals, and the challenge for firms is not to identify an activity by which they can contribute to one goal, but to understand how this activity affects each of the other 16 goals. And many companies lack the expertise to understand all the interdependencies of our complex social and environmental systems.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #17 proposes a solution: "Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development." To foster sustainability, players need to collaborate across sector boundaries. Specifically, such cross-sector collaborations guide businesses, governments, and nongovernmental players to work together to create solutions that address pressing sustainability issues. In short, we need to learn playing with the others.

A small example of a collaboration that can help overcome missing competencies is ECHOstore's collaboration with NGOs to enhance rural women's capabilities to create goods for the national market. ECHOstore was founded to fill the missing link between developed markets and women producing sustainable products in rural areas. When quality concerns occurred, ECHO decided to collaborate with NGOs such as CLOW (Canjulao League of Women) to work with their suppliers, namely groups of marginalized women, to enhance women's capabilities so that they could produce goods at higher quality levels.

While such cross-sector partnerships help to access competencies missing in their own organization, such collaboration is a competence that businesses often lack. Developing the competence to collaborate across sector boundaries is thus crucial to harvesting the full potential of cross-sector partnerships for sustainability, particularly, as the sectors did traditionally not like playing with each other.

Businesses were usually understood as entities wanting to maximize profit without disturbing restrictions. Civil society players and NGO were defined as countervailing power to businesses, feeling they must fight businesses and their negative impacts. And governments setting restrictions on individual and organizational freedom and reaping taxes to grow the state. Overcoming this understanding and collaborating effectively across sectors is crucial to address our pressing sustainability issues.

That's why the United Nations PRME has included the development of supportive social interactions as one of five core methods of effective pedagogy into their largest pedagogy project, the i5 — Impactful 5 project: To develop collaboration for sustainability, managers need to have the courage to build bridges to those communities that are typically not on the radar of businesses, and they need to be able to team up with unconventional allies to tap into new sustainable values potential.

Firms that want to build collaboration competence may offer trainings to help the workforce recognize cross-sector collaboration as opportunities and give them the tools to implement. For implementation , firms may further partner with specialized agents taking the role of systems integrators who bring the three sectors together. To ensure that in-house competence goes beyond knowledge, firms can adjust hiring policies to actively fill positions with talents experienced in the government and civil society sectors.

For managers and those who want to become managers, educational institutions offer a vast range of programs. When you think cross-sector collaboration is key to sustainability competence, look out for programs that develop such competence. At KEDGE Business School, I developed a Masters of Business Transformation for Sustainability, in which program participants have to engage in a two-month compulsory mission with a nonbusiness sector organization.

In small groups, our business school students were working on global civil society projects, from working on a social issue in their local community to protecting global wildlife as a basis for life and business on our planet. By developing an understanding of the mindsets, operational modes and goals of other sectors, participants acquire first-hand cross-sector competence.

It is the collaboration across sectors and the development of the competence to do so that are reflected in UN SDG 17. Jointly pursuing this aim will lead us to a future in which young children can fish in Manila Bay again.

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