Intersectional approaches for corporations and nonprofits

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Collaborations between nonprofit organizations and corporations are a beacon of hope in the fight for a sustainable future, particularly in the fashion industry where environmental and social issues are widespread. As a sustainability projects consultant, I have witnessed the transformative impact of cross-sector sustainability collaborations within apparel and textile supply chains. But what truly sets the most impactful collaborations apart is organizations joining forces — demonstrating a heightened level of commitment and ambition that drive systemic solutions.

But successful collaborations between corporations and nonprofits face several obstacles including balancing competing interests, navigating the inherent differences in organizational objectives and determining how to measure the impact and scope of their joint effort.

Using the power dynamic for positive impact

Navigating power dynamics between nonprofit organizations and corporations is the first significant challenge for collaborations. In the fashion sector, supply chain relationships are often imbalanced, with a hierarchical structure that places the fashion brand at the top due to its financial resources. Brands exert the most influence on the suppliers as customers, providing stability through their purchasing power. Nonprofits leverage this influence to bring on supply chain partners to participate in pilot programs.

On the other hand, nonprofits therefore often depend on corporations to scale up their activities and increase sustainability impact. For example, the brands provide funding for the nonprofit programs through membership fees, donations or strategic partnerships. This financial support can grant the brands a say in the scope of sustainability initiatives executed by nonprofits that might not perfectly align with the nonprofit’s mandate.

For example, a nonprofit could be focused on facilitating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through its sustainability initiatives. These initiatives are not only driven by nonprofit’s mission, but also by development priorities and agendas set by governments. And in some countries, for a nonprofit to remain in operation, it needs to provide evidence that its programs are actually contributing to environmental and social improvements in the sector. To achieve this, nonprofits require brand collaboration as an additional incentive for manufacturers to participate.

For the brands, nonprofits play a crucial role as neutral gatekeepers to communities. They provide the entry points for corporate community engagement, particularly when addressing the social and environmental fallout of business activities. The nonprofits also serve as a third party that can set industry benchmarks for sustainability, align an industry of competitors and outline the sector’s transformation trajectory. Nonprofits help brands foster industry peer relations in pre-competitive spaces.

Different objectives means different measurements of success

When it comes to sustainability and social initiatives, success is often subjective and serving different stakeholders. Even as corporations increasingly shift towards the triple bottom line (people, planet, and prosperity), they are ultimately still responsible for increasing shareholder value. For nonprofits, their accountability is to the communities they serve, governments, funders and other dispersed stakeholders.

These different objectives means that businesses and nonprofits have different ideas of what constitutes success. Corporations have traditionally linked the success of a their sustainability initiatives to long-term profitability, such as a new sustainably produced product that captures a new segment in the market. Nonprofit organizations often prioritize outcomes that can directly be linked to long-term social or environmental transformations within communities such as accelerating the transition towards a circular economy. While the initiatives goals may be related, the measurement of success is slightly different.

Each difference is magnified by divergent working cultures, communication styles, values and goals within each sector. Navigating these complexities requires an intersectional approach — one that considers the unique perspectives and experiences within the organizations. Balancing the needs of both is essential to scaling sustainability impact while maintaining authenticity.

As a strategist at the intersection of nonprofit and corporate collaborations I have found holistic, conscious and inclusive strategies that bridge these two worlds. Here are my ABC’s of navigating corporate and nonprofit partnerships to accelerate sustainable impact.

Assess your sustainability goals through an intersectional lens

Before entering a partnership, start by benchmarking and understanding your organization’s own sustainability challenges. This involves examining the goals and strategies from a diverse set of perspectives — including marginalized communities and those most affected by environmental issues — to guarantee an equitable partnership across all actors. The VF Foundation and The Trust for Public Land partnership is a great example of assessing sustainability goals through an intersectional lens. By acknowledging the outdoor equity gap and the impact of the pandemic on marginalized communities, the partners focused on creating community-driven parks and open spaces that address the needs of those most affected. The partnership showcases the importance of benchmarking and understanding your organization’s own sustainability challenges, understanding your stakeholder challenges and working towards an equitable partnership across all actors.

Build a strong foundation for collaborations with participatory development

Participatory development is a process that involves engaging all stakeholders in the planning and implementation for projects — this ensures that all voices are heard and valued, leading to mutual responsibility and often more effective and equitable outcomes. For example, through participatory development, Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) worked closely with cotton farmers and other stakeholders in the cotton supply chain to develop and implement a set of Better Cotton Principles and Criteria, which provide a framework for sustainable cotton production.

Nonprofits and corporations should co-create action plans together based on the outcomes each wishes to achieve.

Farmers are trained on the principles and provided with support to adopt more sustainable practices, such as reducing water and pesticide use, improving soil health and enhancing biodiversity. Sustainability partnerships require a strong foundation built on trust, communication and shared values. Make transparency and open communication a priority to establish long-term relationships that can withstand challenges and drive impactful results.

Create measurable sustainability targets with shared vision

Measurable sustainability targets are essential to managing sustainability and identifying areas for improvement. By creating those targets and how they will be evaluated together, all parties (nonprofits, manufactures and brands) have a shared investment towards meeting the goals and understand what metrics to work towards, promoting fairness and benefiting all stakeholders. For example, brands could engage manufacturers to contribute to meeting science-based targets. By establishing a shared vision and long-term purchasing commitments, manufacturers are encouraged to invest in sustainability improvements within their facilities, as their return on investment is guaranteed through the shared vision.

Develop a sustainability action plan

Creating a comprehensive and time-bound roadmap is essential for implementing sustainability goals. Nonprofits and corporations should co-create action plans together based on the outcomes each wishes to achieve. This ensures that the action plan is robust and relevant to each partner, considers each partner’s challenges and demonstrates a commitment to sustainability to stakeholders, investors and customers.

For instance, a brand and a nonprofit organization could collaborate to develop a waste reduction strategy that promotes circularity in the fashion industry. Beginning with suppliers that prioritize low-impact materials they could also engage with local communities and organizations to co-create programs that address the social impact of textile waste. The programs could include reskilling and integrating waste collectors, educating consumers about care, responsible consumptions and recycling options. Through awareness and empowerment, this partnership could create positive impacts for all stakeholders involved, from the brand and suppliers to local communities and consumers.

This approach considers the interlocking systems of social, economic and environmental factors. Adopting an intersectional approach can help identify potential unintended consequences or negative impacts of the plan and provide a framework for mitigating these risks.

Engage and foster continuous communication

Establishing effective communication is crucial in bridging the corporate and nonprofit worlds. For example, in the fashion industry where complex sourcing, production and decision making processes are often spread across siloed departments, effective and continuous communication is critical. When you add in more stakeholders with a nonprofit-corporate collaboration, it only furthers complicates communication. Information fatigue, misunderstandings and misaligned priorities are common. Combat this issue by ensuring transparent communication, collaboration and cross-knowledge development. The first key to fostering this type of information transfer is embracing transparency as a starting point.

Each principal for developing sustainable partnerships between corporations and nonprofits highlights the need for an intersectional approach. Businesses need to recognize and address the underlying power dynamics and historical context of communities they participate in. The nonprofit should help the corporation acknowledge and understand a different set of stakeholder perspectives, including the communities most negatively affected.

In the apparel and textile industry, I have seen the successes of partnerships and pre-competitive collaborations, such as the Textile Exchange material challenges, the Fashion Pact’s Collective Virtual Purchasing Power Agreement (CVPPA) and the Global Fashion Agenda’s Circular Fashion Partnership, that demonstrate the industry’s commitment to sustainable practices. But it is only through collective action that we can create a more equitable and environmentally responsible industry.

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