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Mission-driven business leaders do a great deal to address problems affecting environmental and social sustainability within the confines of their businesses and with their immediate stakeholders. But some problems are just too large to be handled that way. When market-wide or policy change is needed, that takes organized action — often in the form of a business coalition. Business leaders who join coalitions find unique and powerful opportunities to help advance their values in the larger economic and political system.

Here’s an inside look at the key stages of a coalition and issues that arise for business leaders who engage in one.

Stage 1 // Conception: Setting the Foundation

Why do we need a coalition? Who should be involved? Answering these questions early will ensure that the mission, framework, and other foundational elements work for everyone.

Then the group can proceed to finding common ground in defining the problem. Avoid jumping to solutions at this point. Success is contingent on developing a common goal and a set of principles that will guide the work. Don’t let political orientations or specific strategies and other details block the development of the principles. Those can be negotiated later.

Right from the start and throughout the life of the coalition, it’s important to acknowledge and respect the concerns and priorities of each member while balancing those with the needs and goals of the coalition as a whole. For example, when we set up the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), we recognized that companies couldn’t be expected to support every position we’d want to take. So we created an infrastructure that enables each business organization and company to play as great or small a role as it wants on any given issue.

Stage 2 // Planning: Charting the Course

In this stage, it’s time to formulate your theory of change and agree on the steps that will lead to the desired outcome. For example, decide what strategies to pursue, including lobbying for new legislation, petitioning government agencies, working with courts, participating in elections, and talking to media. Establish your basic arguments and messages, decide how much of the work will be public versus behind the scenes, and agree about who will be the public face and voice of the coalition.

Next, articulate an integrated plan with timeline, objectives, funding, budget, and so on.

Stage 3 // Implementation: Doing the Work

All of the foundational building and planning pays off while implementing the campaign. For our business campaigns that push for policy change, ASBC uses multiple tactics and activities, such as:

  • Roundtables to develop policy
  • Business-case materials development
  • Business leader fly-ins to Capitol Hill and state legislatures
  • In-district meetings with elected officials and their staffs
  • Working with the media for broadcast, print, online, and social media pieces and editorials, op-eds, letters to the editor, and advertising
  • Sign-on letters and phone calls
  • Business-to-consumer outreach and campaigns

Other coalitions with other goals might use other tactics. For example, in addition to its government affairs and policy efforts, the Outdoor Industry Association publishes the outdoor industry’s economic impact study and regularly convenes meetings to collaboratively address industry-wide supply chain challenges as well as provide a forum for companies to work together in a pre-competitive fashion to develop standards, identify and address information gaps, and build collective knowledge.

Stage 4 // Renew or Disband: Deciding What’s Next

The goals of coalitions shift over time, and coalitions don’t last forever. For example, after the Companies for Safer Chemicals coalition achieved its goal of improving the reform of US toxic chemicals law, it re-focused on challenges and opportunities at the state level, and engaged in California to advance a bill for ingredient disclosure in cleaning products. Sometimes a coalition decides that its work is done and it should dissolve. The Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative, for example, disbanded when it finished developing guidelines for the newly emerging biomaterials market.

All coalitions should reflect periodically on their work, gauge progress, and revise their plans for the future. That’s what we do at ASBC around our goal to push government policy that moves toward a sustainable economy. For instance, we revised our strategies with our members given the most recent shift in power in Washington, DC.

The value of coalitions is to make change that requires a greater voice and power than any individual business has on its own. It’s time we recognize the power of being together with other businesses, and do what we can to exercise that power — as a force for good.

3 Effective Industry Coalitions to Know About

There are hundreds of business-led corporate responsibility coalitions around the world, including general and industry- or issue-specific ones. Here are a few examples that have been especially influential lately.

We Mean Business Coalition

Founded: 2014

Cause: Climate action — to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy

Members: 746 companies and investors who have made climate action commitments, including big names like Apple, Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, and Xerox

Key Accomplishments: Companies representing over $8.1 trillion in revenue have made over 1,200 different climate action commitments. The list of commitments the coalition’s nonprofit members help businesses execute includes adopting science-based emissions reduction targets, sourcing renewable power, and reporting climate change information in mainstream reports as a fiduciary duty.

Sustainable Apparel Coalition

Founded: 2011

Cause: To reduce the environmental and social impacts of products

Members: First created by Walmart and Patagonia, the coalition now boasts more than 205 brand, retailer, manufacturer, NGO, academic, and affiliate organizations.

Key Accomplishments: The first major victory of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC) was creating the Higg Index in 2011, a suite of self-assessment tools that empower brands to measure their environmental, social, and labor impacts and identify areas for improvement. Today, the Higg Index has more than 20,000 posted assessments from over 7,500 companies across 81 countries. Additionally, the SAC is leading the facilitation of the Social & Labor Convergence Project, which aims to develop a common assessment framework and data collection system to address issues like child labor, forced labor, occupational health and safety, and wages.

OSC2 (One Step Closer to an Organic and Sustainable Community)

Founded: 2012

Cause: Sustainability in the natural products industry

Members: 17 CEO members, 20 packaging-collaborative members, and 50 marketing, supply chain, and finance working group members

Key accomplishments: OSC2’s projects include the Climate Collaborative, launched in 2017 to leverage the power of the natural products industry to reverse climate change, and the Compostable Packaging Collaborative, a network of leading brands and packaging companies.

David Levine

Founded in 2009, ASBC and its organizational members now represent more than 200,000 businesses and more than 325,000 business leaders across the United States. These diverse business organizations include trade associations, local and state chambers of commerce, microenterprises, social enterprises, cooperatives, green and sustainable business groups, local main street businesses, women business leaders, economic development organizations, and investor and business incubators. ASBC has been joined by a wide range of companies including Patagonia, Eileen Fisher, Ben & Jerry’s, Seventh Generation, Clif Bar, Etsy, New Belgium Brewing, Green Depot, New Resource Bank, and Trillium Asset Management. ASBC informs and engages business leaders while educating policy makers and the media about the need and opportunities for a sustainable economy. www.asbcouncil.org