How Can We Keep the Private Sector Engaged After COP21?

Hot off the heels of the U.N Sustainable Development Goals launch last fall and COP21 in Paris, there is a lot of momentum around identifying solutions to protect the future of our world and the generations of people who will live in it. We are seeing more and more companies raising their hands wanting to understand how they can contribute in ways that work for their stakeholders and are genuine to their brand. But, as Bill Gates recently said while at COP21, “We need to move faster.”

Moving fast is something the private sector can do. Members of the private sector are the only ones who can develop the new technologies needed to eliminate fossil fuel emissions. They’re the only ones who can produce enough of the right food that is needed to feed the growing world population. And they’re the only ones who have the R&D capabilities to develop therapies to eradicate disease.

Slowly things changed as I began working with companies to build holistic programs to address water, sanitation, hunger and other issues. For me, this is an extremely exciting time. After several years in the private sector, in 2004 I joined the United Nations World Food Program to help the largest food security agency more effectively engage with the large companies and corporations. When I first started, there were so many hurdles that made my job – matching private-sector interests with development programs with whom they could engage – exceedingly difficult. Many of these challenges came from inside the international NGO community where there was a fear of getting too close to companies because they had a supposed agenda.

From my vantage point at the U.N., the partnerships and programs we built were aimed at making a real impact – feed more children, get more communities access to clean water, anticipate weather patterns to preposition supplies for drought conditions, work with farmers to increase quality and yield of staple foods, provide logistical support to move emergency equipment, and so much more. These companies listened and learned about the needs on the ground, aligned their resources and built programs that we collectively thought could work. They were able to successfully achieve this because these programs and the benefit they provided to the world were their north star. And they received great praise for what they were doing along the way, too!

Not every initiative or innovation in the environment or social space worked as planned, but these companies were bold enough to embrace the fact that the lessons we learned along the way were as valuable as the end result. While these are excellent examples of companies that, in my opinion, got it right, the fact is we need more companies to be bold — and we need it ‘faster.’

I am now back in the private sector, leading Ketchum’s sustainability and social impact work, counseling companies around public-private partnerships and communications. I am seeing some different obstacles with private-sector engagement – and it has nothing to do with a lack of interest and desire, lack of opportunity, or even a lack of resources on the part of companies.

The challenge I am seeing is the private sectors’ inability to define its purpose. Why are they in the business they are in, apart from making/selling products and services? I see this leading to their inability to align their products with social or environmental initiatives in a way that maximizes their impact. I see their inability to tell the story of their work and impact in a way that communicates to their stakeholders – investors, policymakers, nonprofit partners, consumers and employees – the value of the company’s investment of time and money.

Environmental sustainability is now a ‘must have’ rather than a ‘nice to have.’ For example, companies are expected to reduce their carbon footprint, and there is little gain in them trying to pat themselves on the back. Reducing emissions, being efficient with water use, recycling and conserving valuable resources – these things are becoming the new normal. The private sector has to step ahead of what’s considered normal and apply its knowledge and resources to test new technologies, innovate to the point of discomfort, be bold in setting a vision for what it wants to accomplish, and don’t be afraid of learning by failure along the way.

Looking back on my many interactions when I was at the U.N. and now that I am in the private sector, I have learned some lessons about how to make sustainability and social programs work for everyone involved (click to tweet):

  • Stick to your DNA: Develop social or sustainability programs that really leverage your resources and are meaningful to your business
  • Start inside: If your employees are not on board, your program will go nowhere. Help them understand what you are doing, why and their role. Employees are consumers and your ambassadors. Help them help you!
  • Take the long view: If your company genuinely wants to be defined by something more than the products or services it offers, expect to not see traction for at least 18 months.
  • Focus on impact: Lead with results not with communications. Build programs that are meaningful and can drive change. If you get that part right, communicating your vision, role and impact is easy.
  • Be bold: Don’t be afraid to put a stake in the ground with your vision and or expectations. If you are transparent about your approach and the lessons learned along the way, you won’t be penalized if you miss your target.

It’s the public sector’s role to identify the environmental and social problems that threaten the world we live in. But it’s the private sector – in partnership with the public sector – that is the engine that can expedite the vital changes that need to be made to create a world for future generations.

A version of this article can be seen on Triple Pundit.