Collaboration is a familiar concept to anyone in the business arena; you have a problem, need a plan, your best bet is often to throw together a group of disparate but talented individuals and let their collective creative energy go to work. The reason collaboration works so well is a combination of passion and purpose; for best results, your pool should be full of people who deeply care about the issue and have a vested interest in solving it.
The same logic should -- does -- apply to the issue of global warming. Where singular efforts fall short, collaboration can take ideas farther, faster -- creating a more powerful positive outcome. There are lots of examples of organizations working in partnership in the name of environmental sustainability, successfully -- but there needs to be more. There's no shortage of businesses that are passionate about the issue of climate change, most of them are well-versed in the concept of collaboration and its effectiveness - so why are we still feeling a void?
I contend the passion is there, but the sense of purpose -- or perhaps "value" is a better word -- might be lacking. As much as we all agree in principle with corporate responsibility as a legitimate function of a for-profit enterprise, I believe there's a lingering sense that doing good is the right thing to do but doesn't -- indeed shouldn't -- provide any sort of bottom-line benefit. In this day and age of corporate mismanagement, bailouts, greenwashing and the like, it would be despicable for a for-profit business to expect to gain anything beyond a warm, fuzzy feeling from its efforts to be a good corporate citizen... right?
A few years back, Dow Chemical teamed up with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to develop a portable method for identifying environmentally improved manufacturing methods. The project resulted in a 43% reduction in polluting emissions from Dow's Midland, Michigan plant. And at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting last fall, retail giant Wal-Mart and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) announced their partnership on an initiative to reduce the use of plastic bags in Wal-Mart's stores by an average of one-third per store by 2013 -- potentially eliminating 9 million plastic shopping bags per year.
I'd hazard a guess that before partnering with the NRDC, Dow Chemical didn't know enough about pollution prevention to modify its own manufacturing methods in a substantial way. Ditto for Wal-Mart, who draws on EDF's strategic problem solving and environmental expertise to help strengthen its position as a sustainable business. While such relationships absolutely center around shared environmental values, there's an inarguable bottom-line benefit for both parties -- whether in the form of improved public perception, enhanced credibility or other intangible advantages that, on their own, these businesses and NGOs wouldn't be able to achieve.
Does the not-completely-altruistic motivation for these collaborative partnerships lessen the value of any positive outcome? On the contrary -- I believe any motivation is good motivation, and I think we'd be farther along in the conversation on how to fight climate change if more organizations banded together not under the guise of saving the world, but with the honest, boldly-stated intent of saving the world and furthering their own missions at the same time.
I'm the CEO of a company that is as passionate about the great outdoors as we are about the boots, clothes and gear we make for people to get out and enjoy it. We're also aware that the manufacture of our products creates a negative impact on the environment -- which means we're essentially battling ourselves in simultaneously preserving and despoiling the outdoors. We're smart enough to know this is a problem -- but because we're not an organization of environmental experts, we don't completely know how to solve for it. That's where collaboration comes in.
Green Rubber doesn't know anything about making boots, but they do understand environmental impact. The company has spent years studying the polluting effect of rubber tire waste, from the more than 80 years it takes a typical car tire to decompose in a landfill to the toxic chemicals released into the atmosphere when tires are burned. Green Rubber patented a technology which effectively converts any sulfur-cured rubber compound (such as tires) into a compound which can then be recycled -- a previously improbable option for vulcanized rubber, and a real boon to the waste tire problem, which is increasing on the scale of more than 1 million tires a year.
Our first conversation with Green Rubber stemmed from the common ground of mutual concern for the environment and led to a partnership that puts their recycled material on the soles of our Timberland shoes. Green Rubber helped us to realize an opportunity to not only lessen our environmental impact (important to us as a responsible business that cares about the outdoors), but also improve the environmental attributes of our footwear (important to us as a responsible business wanting to sell product that is most relevant to consumers who care about the outdoors).
In a perfect world, we'd all have the time and money and resources to be able to run our businesses successfully while also contributing in a meaningful way to social and environmental issues with no need to prioritize our time or justify our efforts. Unfortunately we don't live in that world and in this world where global warming is a critical reality, the clock is ticking. We need more collaboration, more innovation, a greater commitment to taking ideas forward into action -- and if the way to incent that is by bringing organizations together with the promise of "get" for their "give," then so be it. We're not lacking the passion, and if we give ourselves and each other greater license to define the purpose, I truly believe effective outcomes will follow.
For more information on the Green Rubber, Timberland partnership and to discuss the global waste tire issue visit www.earthkeeper.com/blog.
Follow Jeffrey B. Swartz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Timberland_Jeff