Partnerships to Save the Planet: Motivations, Types and Impacts of Sustainability Partnerships

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Partnerships are increasingly emerging as vehicles for confronting sustainability challenges across the globe (Glasbergen et al., 2007; Gray & Purdy, 2018; Gray & Stites, 2013; Pattberg et al., 2012; Taylor & McAllister, 2015) because they typically transcend sectors and governmental boundaries and implicate many different stakeholders whose actions impact each other. Sustainability means achieving a balance between current and future use and regeneration of resources, and many sustainability challenges are also wicked problems (Head & Alford, 2015; Rittel & Webber, 1983; Termeer et al., 2015; Termeer et al., 2019). Partnerships have addressed sustainability issues ranging from climate change, urban development, water management, biodiversity conservation, sustainable agriculture and global food supply chains (Taylor & McAllister, 2015). Building on a systematic review of partnerships for sustainability (Gray & Stites, 2013) and additional research from specific problem domains, this paper will address three broad topics: 1) The challenges of sustainability and the affordances of partnerships as a response; 2) Types of sustainability partnerships; and 3) Outcomes of sustainability partnerships. To understand the challenges of sustainability it is necessary to understand the contextual factors giving rise to the kinds of problems these partnerships face and potential partners’ motivations for and resistance to joining forces around sustainability (Gray & Purdy, 2018). Pressing environmental sustainability issues are not likely to disappear as the world population approaches nine billion in 2050. In the anthropocene (Steffen, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2007), where humanity becomes a key driver of global environmental change, valuable resources such as ecosystems, arable land, the atmosphere, freshwater and oceans face the risk of being over-used, over-extracted, polluted or otherwise negatively affected by human activities. Loss of biodiversity, the nitrogen cycle and the climate system are crossing planetary boundaries that demarcate a safe operating space for humanity (Rockström et al., 2009; Lenton et al., 2019). Over the last 20 years multistakeholder partnerships have emerged as one approach to tackling the thorny technical, economic and political challenges of sustainability by exploiting the interdependencies inherent in sustainability problems (Dentoni, Bitzer & Shouten, 2018; Gray & Purdy, 2018). Partnerships marshal diverse knowledge and other resources and create forums for airing differences in how problems are defined. They enable stakeholders to gain an appreciation of the complexities inherent in sustainability problems, expand and/or shift their frames, and deliberate about what can and should be done to ameliorate these problems (Ansari, Wijn & Gray, 2013; Dentoni et al., 2018; Glasbergen et al., 2007; Gray & Purdy, 2018; Rivera-Santos & Rufin, 2011). Finally, since wicked problems mutate over time, partnerships afford an ongoing mechanism for continued deliberations to adapt to changing problem contexts (Crona and Parker 2012). Our paper will detail various organizational designs that partnerships can adopt, drawing on cases from a variety of substantive sustainability-related domains such as rural development, co-management of natural resources, flood control, mining hazards, infrastructure planning, to industry level norm-setting. For example, Loblaw initiated a Sustainable Seafood Initiative with WWF, the Canadian government and representatives from fish processors and fishing unions improve fisheries in eastern Canada — a co-management process that will eventually have payoffs for Loblaw and many other stakeholders. We present a typology of partnerships based key dimensions such as domain, number of parties involved and the degree of shared responsibility that the partners assume. With respect to outcomes of cross-sector partnerships, some are sector-specific, while others benefit all partners and some are “environmental-centric” which Clark and Fuller (2010: 19) define as “unexpected outcomes related to the ecological, economic, governmental, legal, political, regulatory, social, and/or technological environments beyond the context of those involving the focal issue(s) of the collaboration.” There are also individual outcomes that accrue to those who serve as partnership representatives such as learning, enhanced organizational status and networking (Harrison & Easton, 2002: Kolk et al., 2010). Beyond sector-specific outcomes, there may also be longer term results that spill over into other sectors. In reporting outcomes, we will focus on both benefits and classic difficulties that can scuttle partnerships’ effectiveness including representational imbalances, power differences and problems of working across scale (Ansel & Torfing, 2014; Bansal, Kim & Wood, 2017). For example, partnerships may achieve immediate results (outputs), changes in behaviors or services (outcomes), and impacts (that ameliorate or exacerbate the problem itself) (Kolk, 2014: 27-8). While outputs may suggest success, examining impacts may reveal trade-offs between objectives, e.g., innovation vs. agreement (Page, Thomas & Kern, 2016) as well as unintended consequences such as differential costs born by stakeholders at differing levels of scale (Offermans & Glasbergen, 2016); Wijaya et al., 2018). References Ansari, S., Wijn, F. & Gray, B. 2013. Averting the “tragedy of the commons”: An institutional perspective on the construction and governance of transnational commons. Organization Science, 24: 1014-40. 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Collective action in the face of international environmental regulation. Business Strategy and the Environment, 11(3), 143-153. Head, B. W., & Alford, J. (2015). Wicked Problems: Implications for Public Policy and Management. Administration & Society, 47(6), 711–739. Kolk, A. 2014. Partnerships as a panacea for addressing global problems: On rationale, context, impact and limitations. In M.M. Seitanidi & A. Crane (Eds.), Social Partnerships for Responsible Business: A research handbook (15-43). London: Routledge. Lenton, T. M., Rockström, J., Gaffney, O., Rahmstorf, S., Richardson, K., Steffen, W., & Schellnhuber, H. J. (2019). Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against. Nature, 575(7784), 592–595. Offermans, A., & Glasbergen, P. 2016. On the profitability of sustainability certification: an analysis among Indonesian Palm Oil Smallholders. Journal of economics and sustainable development, 7(18), 45-62. Page, S.B., Thomas, C. & Kern, M. 2016. Innovation and agreement? 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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2020
EventCross-Sector Social Interactions conference : CSSI 2020 - University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland
Duration: 24 Jun 202026 Jun 2020


ConferenceCross-Sector Social Interactions conference

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