How to Work with Society: NBS Resources


Researchers agree many sustainability issues can’t be solved by one organization. Instead, multiple parts of society must work together.

NBS has been working with organizations since 2008. Around 2012, NBS saw a change in the companies we work with.

Many had worked hard to make their companies more sustainable, putting technical and operational changes into place.

Now, they told us, the sustainability issues they faced required them to reach outside their company gates, and find new collaborators.

Different Types of Engagement 

Companies can reach out relatively narrowly or much more broadly. A single company may face a community group pressing for change: for example, to make a factory less polluting.

Alternatively, issues can stretch beyond a single company and community. They may require involvement of an entire industry – or more. For example, food waste is a major problem, with 40% of food in the US and Canada unused. Reducing food waste requires action by farmers, food processors and retailers, and government, among other organizations.

Individual consumers and citizens also affect many social and environmental issues. They can choose to purchase sustainably-made goods, elect politicians who support sustainability, and contribute their own energy and ideas.

NBS resources can guide your organization in engaging with all these members of society.

Work with the Local Community

Individual companies benefit from positive relationships with their communities. Being seen as a good neighbour makes it easier to attract employees and get regulatory approval, for example.

NBS’s guide, Engage Your Community Stakeholders, identifies three ways companies can engage with communities: “investment,” “involvement,” and “integration.” These different approaches vary in their complexity and also their value. “Integration” can be challenging but can also result in tremendous learning for companies. The guide walks you through every stage of taking action.

For companies in the extractives sector, relationships with communities can be especially challenging. The Community Engagement Toolkit for Mining Companies provides even more detailed guidance for assessment and engagement. (The Start Here guide provides general sustainability direction for mining companies.)

Build a Broader Partnership

When a company faces a larger problem — for example, one affecting the whole industry — a different approach can be useful. Multi-sector partnershipsbring together industry representatives (such as individual businesses and industry associations) with government and/ or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For example, the Canadian Boreal Forest Initiative brought together environmental groups in the forest industry to develop a management plan for 73 million hectares. Sustainability through Partnerships identifies different types of partnerships, when they are appropriate, and how to make them most effective. Collaborative community development brings partners together to focus on a specific geographical region.

Working effectively with government is also important. Government policies have tremendous influence on companies and issues affecting them. Good policy helps markets work for both the economy and society. NBS’s report, Building Effective Environmental Policy, identifies how businesses can feed into the policymaking process at different stages and what policies are most effective and efficient.

Engage Consumers and Citizens 

Working not just with other organizations, but with citizens and consumers, can help tackle questions that are on the horizon—or make profound change that goes beyond a single industry.

Consumers can be important allies in advancing sustainability. NBS research shows consumers value sustainability and will pay, on average, 10 per cent more for sustainable products. Firms can increase consumer willingness to support sustainable goods through specific marketing approaches. NBS’s primer and full report on Socially Conscious Consumerism describe how best to reach consumers on sustainability issues.

Certain strategies can be used to positively affect the behaviour of all individuals: consumers, employees, and/ or community members. NBS’s research on Driving Social Change identifies ways that companies can affect behaviours in areas such as the environment, health, civic engagement, and social and economic inclusion. These changes benefit companies as well, through reputational benefits and an improved business environment.

How might a company affect whether people vote, recycle, or stay in school? Behaviour change happens when people have motivation, ability, and opportunity. The report identifies 19 ways that organizations can support these conditions; it also provides advice on managing change projects.

For particularly difficult issues, consider civic dialogue. Civic dialogue brings citizens and concerned organizations together to establish shared understanding on controversial and uncertain topics, such as energy use or nuclear waste disposal. The goal is to build consensus necessary for appropriate and sustainable action. NBS offers an Executive Briefing on civic dialogue and a Best Practices Guide with many examples.


Executive Report



Working with members of society is both challenging and productive. As the saying goes, “if you want to go far, go together.” NBS resources help you on that journey.

To understand how best to work with indigenous peoples, read The Growing Authority of Indigenous Stakeholders. A historical perspective from Southern Africa provides additional perspective.

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