Can socially responsible business be a game changer to fight climate change?

A billboard in New York for Arctic Home, a campaign by WWF and Coca-Cola to raise awareness and funds to protect the polar bear and its habitat. Can corporate partnerships with NGO help tackle tough challenges like global warming? Photo by: Glyn Lowe / CC BY-ND

More and more companies are finding the business case for doing good as they partner with nonprofits and development organizations on social and environmental causes. But are these initiatives enough to address the daunting threats posed by climate change and a host of related challenges?

Peter Dauvergne, author and professor of International Relations at the University of British Columbia, paid a visit to American University in Washington DC last week and cautioned development professionals about the limits to private sector led sustainability initiatives, as well as corporate partnerships with NGOs.

“This is about sustainability of business, not sustainability of the planet in terms of what’s motivating these big companies forward,” Dauvergne said during his talk “Will Walmart Save the World? The Reality of Corporate Social Responsibility” hosted by the American University’s School of International Service in Washington, D.C.

“The motivation itself is important, because why they’re doing it effects the consequences of what they’re doing. And they’re doing it to make money, to make markets grow,” he said.

Dauvergne stressed that companies that ratchet up efforts to be sustainable have greater control of their supply chains, faster product delivery and are ultimately able to lower prices.

“Although [corporate social responsibility] is doing lots of good and there’s ways to leverage this and there’s ways to move it forward … it can’t get us all the way,” Dauvergne said. “We have to get things to move further than they’re moving.”

A spirited debate ensued during a follow-up panel, as it often does when the issue is the role of the private sector in global development.

Cross-sector partnerships can lead to measurable environmental and development changes that shouldn’t be taken for granted, warned Casey Harrison, a program officer in private sector engagement and sustainable agriculture with WWF who is currently working on a partnership with Coca-Cola to improve sustainable sugar cane production in a river basin in Zambia.

“Yes, Coke’s primary motivation is going to be cost savings, and it’s going to be the bottom line,” Harrison said. “But if you can embed the triple bottom line in what they’re doing … you can actually see measurable change take place.”

WWF’s partnership with Coca-Cola to conserve and protect freshwater resources around the world and improve the efficiency of the soft drink giant’s operations kicked off in 2007, and according to WWF has since then led to major improvements in the ecological health of seven of the world’s most important freshwater basins across five continents, as well as raising Coca-Cola’s water efficiency by more than 20 percent.

“It may not be … the rapid change we all desire to see,” he said. “But in my mind, what helps me continue to go to work every day is the fact that I’m seeing some measurable improvement in the ecosystem, in the biodiversity in that region, in soil quality improvements around that sugar cane production.”

For projects like this to materialize, Harrison emphasized partners must be very patient, and advised colleagues working on similar partnerships to put metrics in place as soon as possible.

“Companies always want to make claims before they do anything,” he suggested. “What you need to do is make it very clear to them that you have to put a process into play … have an action plan — something that you can tangibly link that claim to.”

Working with like-minded people, Harrison stressed, is crucial to the success of a partnership, and in the case of WWF and Coca-Cola the connection was a common wish to protect the environment and a desire for change.

NGOs seem to be upbeat on partnering with the private sector in global development projects, but some companies may be wary about potential risks associated with linking up with nonprofits and development organizations. What do you think? Please let us know by sending an email to or leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.