From rented Christmas jumpers to ‘shwopping’, the secrets of successful business-charity collaborations

While the world’s governments meet at COP28 to take stock of progress against the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, business leaders are also considering the impact their organisations have on the environment.

Besides the climate impact of their internal operations, businesses have huge potential to influence the world through their supply chains, products, and the choices their customers make.

Lidl’s recent partnership with children’s charity NSPCC is a great example of this. The supermarket is offering UK consumers a rental alternative to buying a Christmas jumper this year – a clothing item that typically has very limited wear. This kind of “rent-not-buy” solution saves people money at a time when customer finances are tight, but also aims to make a dent in the tonnes of clothing sent to landfill each year – or at least draw attention to the issue.

Challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, inequality and poverty are not easily solved, of course. These complex, interconnecting systemic challenges have implications across borders. They also often unjustly affect the world’s poorest communities.

For businesses, this means sustainability strategies need to account not only for the effects of their own operations, but those of stakeholders like global supply chain partners and customers.

All organisations have limitations in these areas (most businesses need to keep profits and shareholders in mind, for example), and all companies should be wary of attracting greenwashing accusations. This can afflict even well-intentioned initiatives.

Partner up

So, how can business leaders contribute to creating a better world without facing accusations of hypocrisy or greenwashing? Is it even possible for a business to address environmental and societal challenges while keeping an eye on day-to-day operations, revenues and profits? Our research shows partnering with other organisations can certainly help.

A recent cross-sector partnership between Citroën UK and the Big Issue Group is helping the homelessness charity reduce the carbon emissions of the 350,000 miles-worth of annual deliveries it makes. Big Issue magazines are now delivered to vendors by all-electric Citroën ë-Berlingo vans.

When engaging in partnerships like these, managers may find themselves confronting differences in purpose, values and desired objectives from a collaborative project. Our research shows that partnering can cause invisible aspects of an organisational culture to be revealed, sometimes leading to a culture clash. Unless recognised and explicitly managed, differences in expectations and “ways of being” can cause the partnership to fail at launch or fall apart later.

Marks & Spencer’s Oxford Street store, The Pantheon.
Robert Evans/Alamy

One example of a very successful sustainability partnership that has avoided this culture trap is the “Shwopping” programme run by Marks & Spencer and Oxfam. Customers donate unwanted clothing in stores and receive vouchers for M&S purchases, while the donated clothes go to Oxfam. Launched 11 years ago with the motivation of stopping one-in-four items of clothing in the UK being thrown in the trash, the programme is an example of a successful long-term collaboration that has navigated the challenges of partnership working.

Making collaborations work

Through our research, we’ve identified five managerial practices that ensure successful partnerships like the one between M&S and Oxfam.

1. Building bridges

Making an employee or a team the bridge between a company and its external partner can bolster the relationship. Often, a person in this role has worked across two or more sectors during their career. For example, businesses may deliberately hire people with non-profit or government backgrounds. Similarly, charities may recruit people with a business background.

2. Finding ways to engage

Developing processes and methods to engage with external partners encourages ongoing cooperation and trust. Our research found that regular catchups and face-to-face meetings are most likely to facilitate openness and honesty when charities and companies work together. Some organisations even choose a neutral meeting venue to help build a sense of shared identity.

3. Achieving alignment

Our research found the need for mutually defined goals, both for the joint project and its individual partners. This helps avoid misinterpretations of the relationship’s intentions due to contrasting perspectives. For example, the Oxfam and M&S Shwopping programme helps M&S achieve its landfill reduction targets, while helping Oxfam collect clothing to sell to fund its poverty alleviation activities.

External shot of an Oxfam shop in Nantwich, Cheshire.
An Oxfam shop in Nantwich, Cheshire.
Clive Platt/Shutterstock

4. Engaging across the business

M&S has a long-running, company-wide “Plan A” sustainability programme, which offers a supportive cultural context for the partnership with Oxfam. This meant Oxfam could access a wide network of engaged M&S employees across the company that were keen to support the partnership from the start. This enabled the relationship to grow and boosted learning on both sides. In contrast, we found other examples during our research of reporting lines that made it very difficult for the two organisations to benefit from their partnership.

5. Integrating sustainability

Sustainability should already be embedded in a company’s processes, including strategy development, new product development, marketing research and performance management. This makes employees more likely to think in a systemic way about issues that are beyond day-to-day business operations, and more open to collaboration with external stakeholders such as a non-profit.

Whether offering a rented Christmas jumper once a year or maintaining a long-running clothing swap initiative, for-profit companies can gain a lot from partnering with charities. And it’s not just about looking good or attracting new customers. These organisations can harness their differences to find new ways to co-create innovative solutions that address complex problems like the climate crisis.

by : Emma Macdonald, Charles Huang Chair in International Business and Director, Stephen Young Institute, University of Strathclyde

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