Key takeaways from Global Sustainability Partnership Network in Manchester

Last week I attended and spoke at Global Sustainability Partnership Network in Manchester. It was great to meet sustainability leaders to discuss how to work together to transform business, supply chains and the wider systems in which we operate. Here are my key takeaways:

🤝 Seek internal allies: Business units such as procurement, marketing, finance, legal and sustainability teams can be aligned around common narratives and KPIs where interests overlap. For example, around efficiency and eliminating waste, which reduce cost.

🕸️ Pre-competitive collaboration with competitors around common sustainability challenges is growing: Plenty of examples were discussed on the conference stage and among delegates. For example, the BBC is working with other media companies on sustainability initiatives. Circularity in Primary Pharmaceutical Packaging Accelerator (CiPPPA) is bringing together major pharma companies around the need to reduce pharmaceutical packaging. EDF’s Dairy Methane Action Alliance connects industry leaders such as Danone, General Mills, Kraft Heinz, and Nestlé to work together on reducing methane emissions in their dairy supply chains.

⚖️ Sustainability is not just about the environment, but the social dimension too, in areas such as worker rights and social justice: Valid questions were raised around bringing people to the fore in sustainability. Who are we saving the planet for? We need to address modern slavery and child labour in supply chains. Cobalt supply chains in the Democratic Republic of Congo were mentioned as a case in point. Investor action on climate and nature (e.g. TCFD, TNFD) has so far not been matched in terms of the “S in ESG”. 

🏆 If you’re worried about competition from more sustainable business models, become your own competition for a race to the top: Currys was worried about repair shops reducing demand for their products. They reacted by building the largest repair shop in Europe and including repairs and alterations into their business model. Great way to remain cutting-edge and help to transform consumption.

✍️ The power of communications and storytelling: It is refreshing that brands like Patagonia don’t just communicate about achievements, but gaps too. We heard about the power of creative art in breaking down complex ideas. Storytelling can also harness the power of partnerships, such as eBay and ITV partnering on second-hand clothing for reality TV show Love Island.

👁️ Vision and purpose matter: There is a real desire to reimagine the purpose of business. And often this means actually going back to the founder’s vision and purpose.

🧑‍🎓 Sustainability literacy matters more than ever: We need to move from awareness to action, but the need for sustainability education persists. I was surprised to learn that many impact investors haven’t heard of key concepts such as scope 3, for example. Within companies, sustainability literacy remains critical for engaging with staff, from the C-suite to the operational level.

📈 Don’t be afraid to fail: perfect is the enemy of the good. The level of ambition needs to be raised given the growing urgency to act. But there remains a tension between those that believe incrementalism is fine as long as we move in the right direction and those that believe we need to raise the bar. I made the case that the changemaker mindset requires a shift in decision-making and governance. Centralised decision-making may be too slow and inflexible to be able to support the deep and urgent transitions we need in food and energy systems and the purpose of business. Therefore, we need more agile, distributed governance models.

🖥️ Data are important but can be reductionist: The focus should be on the value and purpose of the data. Sustainability leaders need to invest more time in making sustainability measurable, but there are limits in terms of measurability. Not everything that is sustainable is measurable, and not everything that is measurable is sustainable. Collecting data without understanding the meaning and purpose of the numbers is pointless. Too many “solutions” focus on data collection for the sake of data collection, without helping to translate them into tangible recommendations for the board and ultimately into transformative change. 

Get in touch with me and Forum for the Future to unlock the power of reimagining the purpose of business in society.

More on Forum for the Future’s work on the purpose of business in society here.

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