From Awkward Collaboration, Transformative Change
I believe that the current paradigm of problem solving in the civic square is inadequate; what results from the uncoordinated efforts of well intended “players” in the world around us stares us in the face and indicts us for our limited imaginations. As a small company with big dreams, we have known from the get go that only by collaborating—with NGOs, with activists, with critics, with governments, and even with competitors—only through an engaged stakeholder network will we leverage real and sustainable change. Building this paradigm, of awkward collaboration, is incredibly frustrating and potentially transformative.
Case in point: last summer, as part of our on-going, quarterly stakeholder engagement process, we hosted a stakeholder discussion (The Need for Product Comparability) regarding the role of environmental labeling on products in the outdoor industry. We hosted critics, activists, thought leaders, and practitioners. I co-hosted the call with a passionate outdoor retailer, a sustainable leader in retailing — MEC CEO David Labistour. In the process of engaging stakeholders, we confronted real, vexing questions — as for instance, whether our industry should put an environmental label on all products starting yesterday, or whether we should focus more of our industry efforts on perfecting standards and measures and methodologies. And underlying the discussion were months, literally months, of head-breaking conversations and negotiations within the Outdoor Industry Association, all aimed at developing and implementing an industry-wide label and metrics—the OIA Eco Index. For an entrepreneur, for a person of principle—all this process, all this negotiating with stakeholders, all this consensus building is back breaking and worse—but as a small company with big dreams, we know that only through this paradigm of awkward collaboration are we going to make sustainable change. The OIA will get its Eco Index built and implemented—in part because un-natural collaborators (arch competitors like Timberland and Nike and Patagonia, or customer/suppliers like Timberland and MEC) are doing the awkward work of real collaboration.
Establishing meaningful dialogue in order to change the old problem-solving paradigm can be awkward in its own right. Out of a passionate blog post I wrote grew a real conversation with a principled competitor — Jochen Zeitz, the Chief Sustainability Officer of PPR. Credit to Mr. Zeitz for reaching out and establishing a conversation, which discovered a shared urgency around the need for deliberate collaboration in an industry that can be fiercely insular. In the last 10 years, we have spent time with our competitors and with our suppliers and with our customers—awkward collaborations, most of those– to share information, dig deep, and see what we can learn from each other. In every instance I’ve come away learning something, better for the process.
And now, I’m set to do it again. Thank you, Mr. Zeitz, for taking the time to call – I look forward to meeting in Germany, and beginning in earnest the awkward dance of collaboration that drives sustainable change.