Environmental sustainability is a core commitment for Amcor, a global packaging provider, and Veolia, a French transnational specialist in waste, water and energy management. As part of its work to enable a circular economy, for instance, Amcor is using virtual modeling to devise and test packaging materials that work best for consumers and recycling systems around the world. Meanwhile, to accomplish the same goal, Veolia is applying artificial intelligence and launching packaging design collaboration services to help manufacturers design ecological products and optimize end-of-life sorting and recyclability.
The companies’ shared goal of a circular economy is one example of accelerating progress toward meeting UN SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production, along with SDGs targeting climate change, sustainable cities, ecosystem protection and economic growth. And, as Amcor and Veolia demonstrate, aligning efforts across the entire product lifecycle will help achieve the SDGs faster.
“Responsible packaging is part of the answer,” said David Clark, vice president for sustainability at Amcor. “But there also needs to be a recycling infrastructure and support via consumer and societal attitudes and behavior.”
One major obstacle is the lack of communication channels among companies and industries that have not interacted before. Amcor and Veolia, for example, traditionally operate at opposite ends of the product lifecycle. While both companies are seeking to create a more circular model, each company has approached the sustainability challenge exclusively from its own perspective.
“We need to connect the design of a product to its end of life but, at the moment, those two worlds don’t interact much,” said Sébastien Flichy, innovation and valorization vice-president at Veolia France. “Questions about the product’s end-of-life management, such as its composition and size, which affect how it can be sorted through the recycling process, are not clearly examined during product design. We need a co-construction approach in which the end of life is considered during product design.”
But Amcor and Veolia are not alone in rising to the challenge. Both companies partner with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a nonprofit network based in the UK that brings together organizations and resources from different disciplines to promote a circular economy. In fact, in every industry and for every sustainability challenge, a nonprofit organization like this exists, focused on facilitating multi-disciplinary collaboration to get real results.
Creating a common understanding
Frontrunners among these nonprofit networks include Circle Economy, Business for Social Responsibility and the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI). Each is focused on bringing together multiple perspectives and empowering businesses to develop and work toward shared sustainability goals.
“No individual company can meet their sustainability goals alone,” said Luis Neves, CEO of GeSI, an organization based in Brussels that connects information and communication technology companies to collaborate on social and environmental sustainability. “After all, the world’s services, systems, data, software and people are interdependent. From recognizing the wants and needs of customers to being sharply aware of one’s value chains and supply chains — understanding one’s role in the larger ecosystem is key to minimizing risks and working efficiently.”
Collaborating with competitors, and with industries they would not normally interact with, can be a major hurdle for companies – especially when each participant has different views on what sustainability means for their business. By establishing standards that work for each link of the value chain, GeSI provides the neutral dynamic companies need to contribute toward shared objectives and create smarter solutions.
“Our biggest challenge lies in avoiding duplication and unnecessary competition between organizations,” Neves said. “This requires a clear understanding from them that it is in the interest of all parties to work together with a clear vision for the common good. We work to set out the vision and the rules in order to align on our common purpose and individual roles early on in the process, laying the foundations in a collaborative, transparent and inclusive manner. We work hard to ensure that everyone is kept accountable and the standards remain ambitious, keeping our organization credible and transparent.”
By embracing the interconnectivity of issues and benefits, GeSI and similar organizations empower businesses not only to work toward shared goals, but also to create feedback loops that continually inform and inspire their innovation toward a sustainable future.
“Having a single environment for collaboration, such as our member-driven working groups focused on sustainability-oriented projects, can act as an amplifier,” Neves said. “It can take the ideas, strategies and ambitions of different companies and synergize them for greater impact. Because there is no single large stakeholder, it provides an opportunity to focus on thought leadership and strategy work that benefits all.”
“Understanding one’s role in the larger ecosystem is key to minimizing risks and working efficiently.”Luis Neves, CEO of GeSI
A recent GeSI project points to the power of those feedback loops in action. The organization joined the Circular Electronics Partnership (CEP), which includes the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the Green Electronics Council, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE), the Responsible Business Alliance (RBA) and the World Economic Forum to develop a unified vision and roadmap toward circularity for information and communications technology companies (ICT).
“Our relationship with CEP has enabled our members to engage in productive discussions with members of other organizations around the world, to compare their circularity programs, share knowledge to address sector-wide challenges and raise sustainability ambitions,” Neves said. “As a result of our initial work with CEP, our members took the initiative to develop an internal report and explore the activities of GeSI companies in order to support their individual strategies. It’s an example of how our external work can influence our internal programs.”
Tackling complex challenges
Sustainability presents increasingly complex challenges for businesses. Facilitating the communications agreements and activities that will bridge the gaps among industries that have never before interacted requires a combination of human and technological capabilities.
“People will request more traceability throughout the product lifecycle to ensure quality and regulatory compliance, and we’re likely to see technologies like blockchain playing an important role in enabling that,” Veolia’s Flichy said. “Another key challenge is the need to share more data. Today’s collaborative efforts are just the beginning. There is a growing need to increase collaboration and co-construction and to think about the complementarity of different solutions so we can find a path toward sustainability.”
“Our biggest challenge lies in avoiding duplication and unnecessary competition between organizations.”Luis Neves, CEO of GeSI
But there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Knowledge architecture for a circular economy, a 2020 article by Circle Economy, a US-based organization that works with businesses and cities to drive transition toward a circular economy, identified a delicate balance that must be struck to ensure that systems and processes apply equally well in different contexts and for different regions.
“As global appetite for circularity grows, efforts to translate circular knowledge, frameworks and data into digital tools can increase access for a wider audience,” the report states. “This can aid analysis, decision making and progress monitoring. We see the volume of such tools and databases for circularity growing. [However,] if the digital tools are going to realize their full potential, then we need a common understanding of what those frameworks represent, even in different languages.”
While achieving sustainability collaboration across disparate industries is a daunting goal, sharing knowledge across industries is contributing toward progress.
“The big change that’s required, and which we’re starting to see, is a shift toward systems thinking, whether it’s in terms of product design, how we use products or supply chain,” Amcor’s Clark said. “The switch we’re seeing from a linear system where everyone plays their own part, to everyone thinking in a circular manner, is really going to be the cultural and knowledge change that enables true sustainability.”
Five leading nonprofit sustainability organizations
Business for Social Responsibility (BSR)
A global network of member companies, cross-sector collaborative initiatives, and grant-funded partnerships, BSR seeks to ensure that no company is alone in addressing sustainability challenges.
Works with a global community of cities, businesses and governments to accelerate the practical and scalable implementation of the circular economy.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation
Works with business, academia, policymakers and institutions around the world to develop and promote the idea of a circular economy and mobilize systems solutions at scale.
Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative (GeSI)
Facilitates collaboration toward solutions to real-world issues within the information and communications technology (ICT) industry and the greater sustainability community.
United Nations Global Compact
The world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative encourages businesses to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies, and to report on their implementation. It brings companies together with UN agencies and other organizations such as labor groups, NGOs and community and faith-based associations.