If you can’t beat them, join them: Can rival businesses collaborate for sustainability?

They say that teamwork makes the dream work—but when it comes to saving the world, can competing businesses put aside their differences?

Is it possible to run environmental initiatives that involve your competitors?

This was the question posed to speakers at an event on waste management on Thursday. The event, Trash or Treasure: What does a zero waste business look like?, was held at the Singapore Sustainability Academy and brought together industry experts to share how they integrate sustainable waste management into their business models.

Partnerships between players in the private sector, especially competing businesses in the same industry, are uncommon. The development of sustainability metrics has fostered a sense of competition between firms, and green initiatives are often used as a tool for businesses to gain a competitive edge.

However, an increasing number of businesses have been partnering to solve industry-wide sustainability problems. One is consumer goods giant Unilever, which recently forged a partnership with rival Procter & Gamble to tackle ocean plastic pollution.

“Our main strategy to help us reduce waste is called ‘less plastic, better plastic, no plastic,’” said Amita Chaudhury, regional director of sustainable business, Southeast Asia and Australasia, Unilever. “This means we want to reduce the amount of plastic being used in our packaging, ensure all our packaging is recyclable, and go beyond plastic with new distribution and business models.”

The two businesses, along with other consumer goods firms such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Danone and Dow, are channeling funds through investment firm Circulate Capital in a collaboration with non-profit Ocean Conservancy to tackle ocean plastic pollution.

“Within different countries in Southeast Asia, [Unilever is] part of an industry coalition that looks at how we build knowledge and expertise, how we advance waste management solutions, and what some of the technological solutions are—and all this is done together with our competitors,” said Chaudhury at the event co-organised by City Developments Limited and Eco-Business.

It’s always hard to work with competitors.

Luke Ng, chief operating officer, Fuji Xerox Singapore

Unilever and Procter & Gamble are not the only ones setting aside their differences for the greater good—rival computer firms HP and Dell have joined forces in an ambitious project to convert ocean-bound plastic into products. Since Dell launched the programme, furniture and homeware firms Herman Miller and Humanscale, carpet manufacturer Interface, and sunglasses and skateboard company Bureo have joined.

In November last year, Singaporean companies from across the retail, manufacturing, food and beverage and hospitality sectors came together at World Wide Fund for Nature’s (WWF) PACT: a Plastic ACTion commitment event, to discuss the challenges of eliminating single-use plastics within their sectors. The event aimed for companies to sign the PACT and commit to being a zero-waste organisation.

Some companies, however, may still be hesitant to work with rivals. “It’s always hard to work with competitors,” said Luke Ng, the chief operating officer of Fuji Xerox Singapore. “To work with competitors and think about how to design our products [to be more sustainable], I think that will take a while for us to get there.”

Businesses are still concerned about improving their own reputation and brand image, as a growing proportion of eco-conscious consumers are making brand choices based on a company’s sustainability and corporate social responsibility track record. A survey by advertising agency JWT revealed that between two equal brands, 83 per cent of people say they would pick the one with a better record on sustainability. 

“I think corporates realise that if they don’t do anything about plastic waste, they’re going to face reputational risks,” said Jessica Cheam, managing editor, Eco-Business. “For anybody working in an organisation, you have to think about how your brand is being affected by the global sentiment on waste.”

But as more companies are expected to step up their sustainability commitments and take the lead—a proposal for a plastics ban last year in Singapore was rejected in Parliament and the onus to eliminate plastics placed on businesses instead—collaboration between industry players is key to achieving sustainable development.

“It is clear that we must transcend the status quo of individual action to foster collaboration for impact at scale,” says Peder Michael Pruzan-Jorgensen, senior vice president of Business for Social Responsibility, a global non-profit that guides businesses on sustainability.

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