5 Elements to Successful Partnerships that Drive Circular Action

This article highlights key takeaways from the U.S. Chamber Foundation’s virtual Sustainability Summit Series session on Collaborating for Impact.

The world is rapidly becoming aware of unsustainable consumption and waste, and a growing number of companies are setting ambitious sustainability goals to address this fundamental challenge through proactive business solutions. Scaling these solutions can prove incredibly challenging given that current value chains are built to enable linear, take-make-waste solutions.  

Introducing circular economy across a company includes rolling out business models that design out waste, keep materials in use, and regenerate materials on nature-based principles. For example, organizations must look to new financing mechanisms, incentive schemes, and trade policies to liberate global material flows aligned to circular principles.

Implicit in any circular economy strategy is a mandate to build creative, efficient, and inclusive cross-sector partnerships. These partnerships must go beyond simply agreeing on shared sustainability challenges to taking real, measurable action toward progress. 

Through decades of experience and research we’ve conducted for Partner with Purpose, we have found that the most successful and action-oriented cross-sector partnerships feature five key elements: 

1. Trust 

While this seems obvious, its importance cannot be overstated. Without a significant amount of trust between partners on a shared goal, nothing will happen. Trust means there is a willingness for partners to share what each have learned, what mistakes they have made, and what best practices they have used to overcome challenges.  

2. Quick Wins

Partnerships between organizations with different backgrounds and mandates can take time to come together. It’s easy to lose sight of what change they are trying to create. Change takes momentum, and the most successful partnerships will bake in quick wins to create enthusiasm and excitement that keep the collaboration going.  

3. Accountability 

Successful partnerships are accountable partnerships. Accountability in partnerships means accountability to all involved external stakeholders and internal stakeholders within each company or organization. There are many internal players who are impacted, and sometimes presented with challenges, as leaders move toward a circular business model. Recognizing and accounting for this helps drive progress. 

4. Robust project management

It’s a topic most people are familiar with but sometimes it gets neglected. Successful partnerships are anchored in strong project management—meaning someone on the team must step up to organize regular meetings, facilitate discussions, and lead the collaboration. 

5. Relationships and communication

This is different than trust. This is about building a relationship between partners. It requires overcommunicating early on and finding informal moments—like before a meeting—to get to know partners as people. The more partners build genuine relationships with each other, the easier it will be to sustain collaboration through the inevitable bumps along the way. 

How Companies and Organizations Are Coming Together

It takes a lot of resources and effort for leaders to pull together cross-sector partnerships. That’s one of the reasons why the World Economic Forum launched the Platform for Accelerating the Circular Economy (PACE) in 2018 to ignite rapid action by linking global public and private sector leaders to address critical priority barriers and opportunities to unlock the potential of the circular economy.

One initiative championed by PACE’s leaders is the Capital Equipment Coalition. Working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the coalition is expanding its programming and scaling its membership into the U.S. The Coalition delves deep into a critical opportunity in circular business models—preserving and recovering value from the equipment members produce. While pursuing their individual commitments, the group collectively develops an understanding of common challenges and good practices to overcome them by sharing experiences in a trusted environment. By openly communicating on their pledges and insights on replicable practices, the group aims to inspire others to define their own commitments and help drive the transformation of global value chains. 

Other partnerships focus more on specific solutions, like designing new models for extended producer schemes for electronics, and others look at systemic issues like metrics. Each different solution requires an intentional look at what type of partnership is fit-for-purpose to drive action. 

At PACE, we are proactively brokering partnerships to scale existing actions and initiate others by establishing a Circular Economy Action Agenda. By engaging over 200 public, private and civil society partners to share their priorities and evidence for action, we have identified agreed-upon priorities for collaboration in plastics, electronics, textiles, and food.

These global calls to action will be launched in January 2021 and released on PACE’s LinkedIn page. In the interim, we welcome continued input to ensure that partners can move forward at the speed and scale mandated by the issues and opportunities we face.