How to Harness the Wisdom of the Crowds to Create a More Sustainable Business

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Chief executives aren’t known for taking criticism, much less asking for it. Yet that is precisely whatGreen Mondays and Fishburn Hedges Group asked Sainsbury’s boss Justin King to do by signing his company up to a bold, new experiment in “crowdsourcing”.

Crowdsourcing – a portmanteau of “crowd” and “outsourcing” – is about solving challenges by reaching out to an external group (“the crowd”) and asking them to share their opinions and expertise. While not altogether new it is now increasingly being embraced by businesses as a way of accessing innovation beyond the finite resources of their R&D department.

But it is in the area of corporate sustainability that we believe crowdsourcing has the greatest latent potential. This is because the nature, scale and complexity of the challenges demand businesses not only to think outside of the box but to reimagine the box itself. Many businesses have found the innovation required to address such challenges prohibitively expensive. However, crowdsourcing as a collaborative process helps reduce the associated risk while enhancing the capability of a comparatively small central team.

Companies like GE, Unilever and P&G have already begun experimenting with online platforms to capture ideas for new breakthrough products and services. But to safeguard intellectual property the process is kept private: the crowd contribute ideas in confidence as individuals not openly as a collective.

Jim Woods’, CEO at Green Mondays, recently asked an audience of 200 directors of CSR and sustainability whether they thought we were ‘winning the war’ on sustainability. “No” was the resounding response. But for Jim, there was good reason to remain optimistic: new technologies and smarter processes were helping to win significant battles. If we could only scale up those smaller victories through better collaboration and sharing of best practice, we could convert minor battles into major wars.

In response, we worked with Green Mondays to develop a format that would give a company the insights of a crowd of experts, whilst creating an ideas menu that would work across all sectors. This wasn’t driven by altruism but by a belief that collective problem-solving, when applied to a concrete, company-specific set of challenges, could help move sustainability from the margins to the mainstream.

Determined to become Britain’s greenest grocer, Sainsbury’s bravely agreed to be the first to embrace this “go naked” approach to open innovation. Crowdsourced Green Mondays was born.

In practice, this involved strategically baring all in a detailed, pre-event appraisal that laid out the company’s 20 by 20 Sustainability Plan and to which 220 of Green Mondays’ FTSE350 business and sustainability experts then contributed suggestions for what Sainsbury’s should do next.

Covering the 10 areas identified by the business as most material to its social and environmental impact – from creating a greener, more equitable supply chain to engaging customers, communities and wider society – the results were then explored in depth during Roundtables at adedicated event at which Justin King gave the keynote address.

So what did the crowd make of Sainsbury’s sustainability strategy? Overall, it was commended for the breadth and ambition of many of its commitments, identifying the company as a leader in two of the 10 key areas, with an average rating of “marginally ahead” in comparison to FTSE peers.

Leadership on sustainable fishing was singled out for praise as was a commitment to communities at home, through initiatives tackling food poverty, youth unemployment and obesity, and overseas, as the world’s biggest vendor of Fairtrade products.

Two main areas for improvement stood out for the crowd: ‘building a sustainable supply chain’ and ‘engaging customers on sustainability’.

To delve deeper into the analysis of the 1,162 ratings, 689 expert comments and 488 best practice suggestions, you can read the final 30-page report. There is certainly food for thought for both Sainsbury’s and its peers, but maybe the key outtake is that with direct competitors, such as M&S and Tesco part of the crowd, this novel approach heralds a new era of open business in which shared problems are tackled together.

First published on the Huffington Post

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