This article originally appeared in Ensia magazine here.
Ninety-five percent of all manufactured products have one thing in common: chemistry. And there’s a bit of “magic” that makes commercial chemistry possible — accelerating chemical reactions to make innovation more economical. That magic is in the use of catalysts, without which we would not have many of the modern materials we rely on today.
In the pursuit of sustainability, collaboration is much like a catalyst: the “magic” ingredient that fosters global sustainable development and accelerates our mutual progress, even against some of the toughest challenges we face in water, food and energy. By combining individual strengths in our respective disciplines and focusing on the collective results, we can accelerate and amplify our collective success. Looking to remarkable examples of courageous ingenuity and collaboration — among the private sector, academia, government and NGOs — can help guide us in our quest for a sustainable planet and society.
To that end, here are six collaborations working as catalysts for change — across sectors and challenges — worthy of reflection and emulation.
Tapping Into Cleaner Energy Resources, Safely and Responsibly
Sometimes the biggest breakthroughs result from collaboration between unlikely bedfellows.
In a landmark alliance, natural gas exploration and production companies, including Chevron and Shell, have teamed up with environmental non-governmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Clean Air Task Force and philanthropic foundations in pursuit of a common goal: to establish standards around hydraulic fracturing — a process used to extract natural gas from shale — and to hold themselves accountable for their performance.
Forming the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, this initiative has resulted in the development of 15 performance standards and an independent, third-party certification process designed “to ensure safe and environmentally responsible development of our abundant shale resources.” Though there is certainly more work to be done, this collaboration has yielded significant technical advancements in protecting our air, water and environment during natural gas production in the U.S. Although this experiment is in progress, the parties involved should be recognized for the new standards they have catalyzed.
Confronting Climate Change by Addressing Greenhouse Gas Emissions
With the widespread impact of climate change extending well beyond energy production, the collaboration of many is required to tackle greenhouse gas emissions — and thus slow, stop and ultimately reverse climate change.
Although individual organizations certainly can and do reduce their own emissions, the effect is accelerated and maximized when parties collaborate in pursuit of the common goal. In fact, many organizations have come together to set international standards and start making progress in this global effort, including the formation of the GHG Protocol.
Resulting from a decade-long partnership between the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the GHG Protocol has become “the most widely used international accounting tool for government and business leaders to understand, quantify, and manage greenhouse gas emissions.” Adopted by corporate users across various industries — from automotive and consumer goods manufacturing to oil and gas producers and service companies — as well as noncorporate users such as governments and NGOs, the GHG Protocol has become an international benchmark for reporting GHG emissions, thus forming a global network and providing a strong basis for assessing the opportunities to address GHG emissions most effectively.
Educating the Environmental Leaders of Tomorrow
Changing the world will take a broader focus than just the here and now; the workforce of the future must be equipped with the power of collaboration for the world to truly evolve. Fortunately, Millennials feel a natural longing to make a difference and quite possibly care more deeply about sustainability than any previous generation — thus making this group ripe for change. Yet urban youth have limited opportunities to interact with nature and prepare to make career choices in the emerging field of sustainability.
Since 1995, the Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future program — a collaboration between The Nature Conservancy and the Toyota USA Foundation — has pursued its mission of empowering the next generation of conservation leaders by exposing urban youth to opportunities in the natural world. By partnering with high schools around the U.S., the program seeks to enhance exposure to “urban environmental education” among students and educators through mentorship and internship opportunities, as well as best-practice sharing.
LEAF program participants pursue environmental career paths at a rate more than five times the national average, and 50 percent of participants are involved in environmental volunteering — more than 10 times higher than the national average.
Changing the Way the World Tackles Poverty
Since ancient times, poverty has reached all corners of the globe. And like all other challenges, it will take a strong, powerful collaboration to enact change.
The Acumen Fund, a nonprofit organization, raises funds to invest in start-up enterprises, leaders and ideas that “are changing the way the world tackles poverty” through a bold new free-enterprise approach that is “about dignity, not dependence, and choice, not charity.” Acumen has focused on empowering entrepreneurs and social enterprises to solve hunger, environment, education and water challenges across the globe, with a strong focus on women as engines of change.
According to the organization’s website, Acumen has been able to invest $83 million in breakthrough innovations in the fight against poverty by partnering with leading philanthropists, foundations and corporations around the world, such as the Aman Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google. Dow has also partnered with Acumen on skills-based support through a special collaboration in Africa.
Delivering Safe, Affordable, Clean Water to the World
According to former United Nations special adviser and head of the U.N. Environment Programme’s Green Economy Initiative, Pavan Sukhdev, “We use nature because it’s valuable, but we lose nature because it’s free.” For thousands of years, freshwater has been a free and abundant resource on which families, communities and corporations depend. However, one in eight people around the world today lack access to safe drinking water. Freshwater is an essential element to human health and sanitation, and the lack of readily available freshwater represents a global crisis — one that can only be resolved through the collaboration of governments and industry alike.
A special initiative of the U.N. Secretary-General, the CEO Water Mandate brings together business leaders — in a powerful collaboration with the U.N., civil society organizations, governments and other stakeholders — to advance the cause of water sustainability. Working toward the same goal, the Global Water Challenge seeks to forge partnerships and beget innovative approaches to water and sanitation among the sectors’ leading organizations, generating “far greater results than any one organization could by itself” and accelerating progress.
Bringing Accountability and Visibility to Sustainable Business
Ultimately, businesses around the globe must also collaborate and hold each other accountable in pursuit of a sustainable world, bringing accountability and visibility into the process and helping ensure corporations are held accountable for their sustainability claims.
The mission of theInternational Integrated Reporting Council is focused on the adoption of “Integrated Reporting,” creating one corporate report with material financial and nonfinancial information for investors. By bringing together “a powerful, international cross section of leaders from the corporate, investment, accounting, securities, regulatory and standard-setting sectors as well as civil society,” the IIRC is building a unified framework that helps investors understand the long-term sustainability of a company. A U.S.-based nonprofit, theSustainability Accounting Standards Board, started a similar process in 2011 to define sustainability information for investors. These two collaborations promise to reshape reporting for investor audiences for generations to come.
The Collaborative Future
Today we are witnessing courageous collaborations in unusual areas that showcase not only the growing interdependence of the world but also the opportunities to accelerate and achieve sustainable development.
As we look ahead to our collective future, these examples of collaboration can serve as inspiration for all of us, and we can seek to emulate their success. In the pursuit of sustainability, we must constantly innovate new ways of working together to make progress. Viewing collaboration as the catalyst — the “magic” — that will accelerate progress is a helpful framework and guidepost as we chart a new future for our society, economy and planet.