“In many cases, companies bring not only capital, they bring platforms to scale.” —Eric Olson, BSR
“What we need is co-venturing. Sometimes this is a commercial venture, sometimes it may be an advocacy group, but its birth is by bringing people together.” —Justin Adams, Beyond
Olson opened the session with an introduction to BSR’s new initiative, Collaboration Laboratory or Co-Lab. A number of pilot initiatives are increasingly gaining the attention of companies as viable solutions to current sustainability struggles. The challenge is to scale these initiatives in such a way that achieves widespread and meaningful change. Co-Lab is a tangible step to meet this challenge. The Co-Lab approach involves designing, piloting, and implementing large-scale, multi-stakeholder initiatives to address complex global sustainability challenges that no one company can tackle independently.
Olson pointed to BSR’s HERproject as an example of a pilot that Co-Lab will seek to scale. Through HERproject, BSR collaborates with buyers from the information and communications technology, agriculture, and garment industries to provide workplace-based women’s health education to low-income female workers in global supply chains. HERproject is an example of how BSR can leverage not only its skills, but its network: BSR works within its network of companies to encourage their suppliers to make room for the program. BSR then organizes community-based NGOs in the health care delivery, training, and finance sectors to provide training in these workplaces. Furthermore, HERproject is an ideal case for scale because of its proven business benefit: HERproject has generated a return on investment of up to 4 to 1. For these reasons, Co-Lab will seek new funding models to scale HERproject from benefiting 200,000 women to reaching 10 million women.
Co-Lab will not only seek to scale existing pilot initiatives (e.g., HERproject), but it will also seek to form new partnerships to address present challenges in a creative and sustainable manner. Adams founded Beyond with a view toward these collaborative initiatives. One of the primary focal points of Beyond and the partnership with Co-Lab is the stress nexus around land use. There are a growing number of pressures on land: 2.6 billion people depend on land for their livelihoods, 70 percent of water is used for farming, and 30 percent of energy is used in the food sector. Land is also a major driver of value and opportunity as we look at where future economic solutions will emerge. How do we recognize the competing uses for land as we fast-forward?
Encouragingly, Adams pointed to a number of steps that have already been taken. For example, the RT-REDD Consortium (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) links farmers in need of funding to certify their farms with REDD+ programs that are striving to engage their farm sectors. However, innovative and effective programs, such as RT-REDD, face barriers when they try to scale. Furthermore, solutions often layer on additional costs (e.g., certification). Finally, the public and private sector initiatives are disconnected. In order to address these barriers, Beyond seeks to bring together corporations, NGOs, and the public sector to leverage the assets of each to push toward scalable models. For instance, Beyond connects the food and agriculture industry with RT-REDD in order to help scale the initiative. Building on the findings of HERproject and RT-REDD, the new Co-Lab initiative will convene corporations and external stakeholders to develop on-the-ground, scalable solutions for land.
After an introduction to Co-Lab’s new land initiative, the floor was given to the audience to ask questions. One participant asked how Co-Lab expects to scale beyond these first two initiatives. Adams responded by reminding the audience that developing pilots takes time and requires the right steps. That said, success in 10 years is defined by the model not being talked about but being replicated. “We need some quick wins,” Adams explained, “and we need visibility to say that this is the type of approach that brings real solutions. We have to prove the concept, and then hopefully it will self-replicate.”
Another participant asked how Co-Lab will communicate the value proposition to corporations. Adams responded by presenting the clear business case. “This is about resilience and security for your supply chains in the future. This is about future consumers and future growth opportunity. This is about managing risk. This is about brand value.”
A representative from Citigroup asked Adams and Olson to provide some additional information on the financial models that Co-Lab will pursue. Adams pointed to the opportunity of social impact bonds. He also pointed to the level of capital currently available in low- and middle-income countries through low-cost financing. Olson added to the discussion by pointing to the potential of bilateral funding. Bilateral funders are eager to fund solutions that address sectoral challenges, build local capacity, and work toward behavior change. Beyond bilateral funders, BSR will look to private foundations and federal funding.