How can we create strong partnerships for sustainability?






EXCLUSIVE: The global response to Covid-19 has proven how businesses and other organizations can be nimble and pivot to deliver solutions quickly – often in partnership. edie asks Una Kent of Walgreens Boots Alliance how these learnings about collaboration can be applied in the sustainability space.


Listen to Una Kent at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum in London this week

Speaking exclusively to edie before her appearance at youhe Sustainability Leaders Forum (scroll down for details), Kent, the firm’s international vice president for CSR, begins by summarizing: “The pandemic has shone a light on the need and power of collaboration and partnership…it has undoubtedly taught us what is possible when organizations, countries, governments and businesses come together to focus on a common goal. No one can [solve a global pandemic] alone”.

At the start of the pandemic, headlines were filled with stories about distilleries, breweries and perfumers switching production lines to make hand sanitizer. Other manufacturers, meanwhile, have turned to PPE and ventilators. Later came news of new partnerships around responses to social issues that would clearly last a few months, such as the need for contactless deliveries to vulnerable people.

Likewise, Walgreens Boots Alliance (WBA) has responded not just by providing tests and vaccines, but by forging partnerships to help address some of the social issues that have risen as a result of the pandemic.

For example, the retailer has worked with the UK Home Office on a program for pharmacy visitors to discreetly report domestic abuse and access help, called “Ask ANI”. Similar programs have also been launched in Ireland and Chile. In particular, pharmacies have been classified as essential and allowed to remain open during the confinement restrictions in these geographical areas.

Elsewhere, recognizing the impact of the pandemic on career development – which has proven more pronounced for women – WBA has launched a series of initiatives to empower women in the workplace in the US and UK United via its No7 brand. Partners included careers network AllBright, US-based equality service provider The Female Quotient and UK educational charity The Female Lead.

Kent believes lessons learned from Covid-19 partnerships should “absolutely” help environmental sustainability professionals inform their future work.

A renewed emphasis on working together

Of course, partnerships were at the heart of many organizations’ sustainability strategies for years before the pandemic. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), used by more than 1,500 companies through the United Nations Global Compact alone, are underpinned by the 17and Goal – “Partnerships for Goals”.

WBA is one such company. It pledged to support the SDGs soon after they were released in 2015, and between 2016 and 2018 the company mapped all targets and actions against the 17 goals. WBA Vice President for CSR Richard Ellis previously told edie that this activity has proven invaluable in aligning sustainability with profitability and in forging and growing “meaningful cross-industry partnerships.”

Since this interview with Ellis was conducted some three years ago, the scale of the world’s most pressing environmental challenges has only become clearer, thanks to improving science and increased attention in public, financial, commercial and political spheres.

At the same time, in part because of the pandemic, it would be hard to argue that there has not been increased recognition of how these challenges – and, therefore, their solutions – are interconnected. As nations come to terms on new global biodiversity ambitions, the link between climate and nature may be in the spotlight.

The WBA, Kent explains, is best placed to work at the intersections of climate and human health. She says: “The Lancet has claimed that climate change is the greatest health crisis facing the world. It is responsible for extending inequalities in a warming world where the risks posed by extreme weather events; transmission of infectious diseases; and food, water and financial insecurity overwhelm the most vulnerable populations, depriving them of basic human access to health care, hygiene and an essential aspect of good health.

WBA recognizes that other companies stand at this same intersection. Kent explains how he has continuously worked with Bupa, GSK and Forum for the Future to help develop an approach to provide a joint response to the private sector’s climate-related health challenge. This culminated in the release of a new report at Climate Week NYC last September, outlining a roadmap for developing strategies that address both systemic challenges.

The Ingredients of a Meaningful Partnership

Unfortunately, not all of the sustainability-related partnerships that have been forged before will have resulted in a report or the launch of a program. Many have launched, only to find the program or related programs short-lived and/or small-scale.

In a post-lockdown world, many businesses are still struggling to secure their economic recovery from Covid-19. Additionally, sustainability teams are under increasing pressure to avoid greenwashing and deliver an ambitious, science-based response to ongoing global crises. While budgets and resources remain stretched in many SMEs, it has been said that corporate teams are now expected to be ‘activators’ for their boards, providing answers to all sorts of pressure points.

These two contextual factors mean that the pressure is high to avoid partnerships for the sake of partnerships. Edie therefore asks Kent for his opinion on the key elements of a solid partnership. She lists:

  1. Have agreed on common perspectives and goals
  2. Ensure that all partners have a mindset focused on a purpose beyond profit
  3. Ensure the partnership is relevant to the business and to key local market stakeholders, including customers
  4. Build a strong management team, using a good structure
  5. Distribute the benefits of the partnership fairly
  6. Provide consistent updates on progress and react accordingly when progress is not on track

For Kent, the first two points are non-negotiable and form the basis of the other four. She says, “The values ​​that a company brings to the table when building partnerships hold true, regardless of the goal. As long as they are centered on an agreed objective and the role of each partner is well defined and understood.

WBA, for example, lists its goal as “creating a better world through health and wellness” and enabling “happier lives through better health.” He lists his four core values ​​as “brave, connected, engaged, and curious.”

Readers interested in learning how they can identify and prioritize their purpose are encouraged to read Edie’s recent guest blog on the subject from Seismic co-founder and chief impact officer, Amy Borbeau. This blog also summarizes how adopting goals can boost profitability and longevity, providing practical tips for gaining buy-in.


Create solutions with Una Kent at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum 2022

Edie’s biggest event of the year returns as a live, in-person event for 2022.

The Sustainability Leaders Forum will take place on March 7, 8 and 9, 2022 and will bring together hundreds of professionals for inspirational speeches, dynamic panel discussions, interactive workshops and facilitated networking. There will also be digital tickets.

Taking place at the Business Design Center in London, the event will bring together over 60 speakers, including experts from Natural England, the Green Finance Institute, the World Economic Forum and the Center for Climate Repair. We are planning our most diverse and inspiring program yet.

Click here for more information and to book your pass.

Una Kent co-facilitates a workshop on the first day of the Forum (March 8), at 1:30 p.m., on the theme of building meaningful partnerships to drive systemic change. She will be joined by experts from Earthwatch, Neighbourly, IHG Hotels & Resorts and Forum for the Future.


Sarah Georges