“If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together” – partnerships leading to greater sustainability success

In a recent discussion hosted by the Guardian Sustainable Business Network, it became apparent that unlikely cross-sector relations can benefit the environment, as well as all parties involved.

It has long been assumed that businesses and NGOs are not strategically compatible, but in a world that is increasingly concerned with corporate-social responsibility, and the economic benefits of ethically admirable behaviour becoming more tangible; the relationship is ripening.
The online Q&A was comprised of experts from big businesses such as Accenture and Nestle, and NGO leaders from Save the Children, and Business Fights Poverty. All of whom, agreed to a certain extent, that collaboration can create real results for sustainable development.

Janet Voûte, who manages Nestle’s NGO and stakeholder relationships welcomed a report recently published by Oxfam entitled ‘Behind the Brands’ which accuses a plethora of household names of taking a top down approach to development problems, as opposed to addressing the root causes. The acceptance of the report is a huge step, and Voûte says she sees it as an opportunity to ‘share progress and understand how to do more’.

One interesting point which was raised from the discussion is the increased consumer activism surrounding ‘green’ products and business initiatives. Consumers have been saturated with environmental objectives and now there is a certain level of apathy around the subject. This is something which needs to be tackled head on if sustainability is to further become the centre-focus of big business and as a continuation, society as a whole, and NGOs are well placed to help businesses regain this trust.

Founder and Executive Director of Accenture Development Partnerships, Barbara Reynolds commented that a recent ComRes survey illustrated this point with over a third of consumers boycotting brands they believe to have precarious ethical standards across a variety of issues. She said: “It is a strategic imperative for business to work with NGOs to improve the transparency of supply chains”.

“Behind the big brands and stereotypes there are individuals who mainly share a similar set of beliefs about improving things”, says founding director of Business Fights Poverty, Zahid Torres-Rahman. This is a good starting point when considering how best to apply the knowledge of both parties in creating innovative and sustainable solutions, which often materialise in volunteering opportunities or mentoring schemes for each party to gain a greater understanding of the other.

It is imperative for the success of sustainability for cross sector allegiances to be built on these shared values, and moreover it is happening. Barbara Reynolds from Save the Children says that NGOs can provide research and grass roots insight, businesses can provide funding as well as technology and knowledge transfer, and governments can provide guarantees for risk prevention and incentives for businesses.

As the issue of conflict minerals becomes of increasing interest to government bodies and businesses, it is time to start utilising the relatively untapped resource of NGOs to make business the facilitator of change in developing countries, as opposed to a boundary to it.

One thing all parties agree on is that transparency is a key to accountability. The question is how best to action this and it appears we may see more collaboration between parties to reach a workable solution in the future. This was concisely put by Torres-Rahman who cited a famous African proverb: “If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together”.

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