BUSINESS and environmental activists are worlds apart — ideologically opposed, distrustful and antagonistic over each other’s motives, right? Those of us who have followed the high-profile daredevil actions of the anti-whaling, anti-palm oil or anti-nuclear campaigners may agree. But the acrimonious relationships and publicity stunts of the past are less common than before. The landscape is rapidly changing.

Increasingly, businesses and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) realise the need for collective action on common causes. So British charity Oxfam has partnered with corporations such as global insurance company Swiss Re to improve the livelihoods of small farmers and UK multinational retailer Marks and Spencer to encourage customers to recycle clothes they no longer wear.

Even Greenpeace is working with logging companies and governments to save Canada’s remaining coastal rainforest — which shows that in unusual times, unusual partnerships are forged to solve common problems.

Consumer-facing businesses, such as those in retail, have a great opportunity to incorporate the broader societal interests with those of their businesses — after all, their customers, employees and business partners are real people with deeply vested interests in sustainability issues. Woolworths has long understood this and has used the Good Business Journey to forge relationships with civil society, regulators, environmentalists and academics to achieve key sustainability goals in a range of areas, such as sustainable fishing and farming, water, energy, waste, social development and transformation.

Last December, Woolworths took this model of collaborating with NGOs a step further and brought the Worldwide Fund for Nature in South Africa (WWF-SA), one of the most trusted environmental brands, on board as a formal adviser to the company. Finding lasting, positive solutions requires new collaborative approaches.

Through our partnership with WWF we hope to leverage its expertise to meet ever more stringent sustainability targets, for instance, in ensuring efficient use of fresh water and energy in our supply chain and for the sustainable sourcing of textile, dairy, seafood and beef products. Together we are setting measurable targets to reduce environmental effects in relation to carbon, water, land use and biodiversity and even aim to devise innovative market mechanisms to incentivise sustainable agricultural practices and the protection of our fish stocks.

With about 50 PhD and master’s degree experts working for WWF in South Africa alone — many of whom are specialists in biodiversity, climate change and other areas that are not traditionally a retailer’s expertise — we are in an ideal position to learn from the WWF’s knowledge and global network.

We can learn from WWF’s local and global technical expertise, research capabilities, industry insights and networks to further our common environmental goals. WWF will guide us as we explore the most sustainable processes, putting us in a better position to deliver on increasingly stringent demands from our key stakeholders — including our customers and staff, who have considerable influence on how we do business.

Elsewhere businesses and NGOs are forging fruitful and mutually beneficial relationships that make business sense.

Global brewing giant SABMiller partnered with WWF in 2008 to help it better understand the implications of water for its business and to explore opportunities for a systems shift.

While many of SAB’s breweries are situated in water-rich, well-governed areas, brewing beer depends heavily on water. On average, it takes 4.5 litres of water to brew one litre of beer. Beyond the brewery, water is needed to grow the raw ingredients of beer: barley, hops, maize and sugar cane, of which hops are a water-intensive crop. With this included, the total water footprint for beer in South Africa, from growing the crops to producing a product for consumption, is 155 litres of water per litre of beer. It’s not difficult to see how a lack of clean water could present a business risk for SAB in South Africa.

By partnering with WWF, SAB has been able to identify the threats to water catchments and to their business. WWF has provided SAB with a systems approach to build resilience to mitigate these risks.

Looking beyond the company, water is a shared resource and its scarcity presents a shared risk to business and society as a whole. By stimulating a shared response, SAB is not just improving the status of water as a resource, the company is also building resilience in other areas through a series of knock-on effects reinforcing the ideal that a sustainable business benefits more than just the direct stakeholders.

We are finding that co-operation with NGOs is helping us create an environment that benefits both resilient business and resilient ecosystems. The two go hand in hand and sustainable practices make good business sense as well.

Business is integral to society and a powerful driver of socioeconomic development. Many multinational corporations rival entire nations in their size and influence. They can be a force for good for many or they can simply chase shallow and profit-focused interests that benefit only a few. It is no surprise therefore that campaigning groups are increasingly focusing their energies on the big branded businesses, in many cases challenging their labour, environmental or human rights records.

But activist groups are also collaborating with these business giants to achieve common goals. It is a case, perhaps, of opposites attracting. However, for them to remain attracted to each other there needs to be trust, shared values and common purpose. Transparency and authenticity are key, as is buy-in from the top.

This is supported by a recently released survey by the Boston Consulting Group and MIT Sloan Management Review, which found that sustainability needs the backing of top management to thrive.

Examples of successful multinationals that have thrived in this model include Dell, Kraft and Marks & Spencer, which saved £185m through its focus on sustainability — an amount it was able to reinvest in the business. Notably, the research also showed that companies motivated by the opportunities linked to sustainability are more likely to succeed when compared to those forced into it by regulatory requirements.

Sustainability must be at the centre of the way companies do business.

For this to happen initiatives must be championed from the top and focus on business strategy imperatives. For instance, by focusing on technology innovation and resource efficiency in real estate, logistics and the product groups, Woolworths has saved more than R155m in the last five years while reducing energy and fuel usage, packaging and increasing the use of recycled materials in our operations and products.

We are a small example of a trend that is accelerating across the globe. Ultimately, we must all look at sustainability as "a way of business". With the world’s population exceeding 7-billion, governments, business and civil society must work together if we are to house, clothe, feed and develop this growing and increasingly aspirant population.

This means continuing to drive efficiencies in the production of food and goods and focusing on technological innovation to preserve scarce natural resources.

Smith is head of sustainability at Woolworths.