22.3 Multistakeholder partnerships for climate change: purpose, approach and substance

Jonatan Pinkse , University of Amsterdam Business School, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Ans Kolk , University of Amsterdam Business School, Amsterdam, Netherlands

There has been widespread recent attention for climate change, most notably linked to ongoing attempts to realise a successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, as discussed for example at the December 2007 conference in Bali. While policy-making efforts are still underway, the past few years have also seen a wave of voluntary initiatives at the local, national and international levels in order to start addressing the issue and build knowledge about possible solutions. This applies not only to those countries that have supported the Kyoto Protocol from the beginning, but also, and in some respects even more (if we for example consider state-level actions), to countries whose governments have been less enthusiastic about climate change policy such as the US (and, until recently, Australia). Especially in recent years, a range of voluntary collaborative arrangements between companies and other actors in government and society have emerged. These so-called multistakeholder partnerships (or cross-sector alliances) have received considerable attention in the field of (sustainable) development more generally (Selsky & Parker, 2005; Waddock, 1991), but only scarcely with regard to climate change – a gap that this paper aims to help address.

For companies, which face regulatory uncertainty and the complexities of finding an appropriate approach towards a complicated global issue that requires broad involvement, engagement with various stakeholder groups supplements the range of corporate activities already being undertaken (Hoffman, 2005; Kolk & Pinkse, 2005). Multistakeholder partnerships are flexible and seem to offer many advantages to companies. They can be a tool to manage the risks and exploit opportunities posed by climate change and to participate in setting a post-Kyoto agenda. Companies may improve the management of their climate impacts by getting access to other know-how and networks of expertise, which open avenues for innovation. Partnerships also offer ways to answer stakeholder demands, and improve companies' credibility, legitimacy and brand reputation, thus increasing awareness of and attractiveness to new and existing customers as well as employees (Elkington & Fennell, 1998; Rondinelli & London, 2003; Yaziji, 2004). In spite of the potentially important role of such collaborative efforts for climate change from various perspectives, there is not much insight into the extent to which companies engage in multistakeholder partnerships, how they function and with what focus. Such information seems to be necessary in order to be able to subsequently assess the pros and cons, and the contribution of multistakeholder partnerships as one of the policy modes for addressing climate change.

This paper examines the range of multistakeholder partnerships in which leading companies are involved to shed more light on this topic. By integrating literatures on corporate political behaviour, institutional entrepreneurship and strategic alliances, it will analyze three aspects of multistakeholder partnerships: their purpose, the approach chosen to achieve this purpose and the degree of substance of the activities employed as part of the partnership. With regard to the purpose we examine to what extent firms engage in partnerships to manage the political imperative of managing institutional pressure, the economic imperative of positioning in product markets, or a combination of both (Oliver, 1991; Salorio, Boddewyn, & Dahan, 2005). With regard to the approach we therefore differentiate between a technical approach of developing new technologies and/or implementing specific greenhouse gas reduction measures and an institutional approach of playing a role in climate change governance through legitimacy-seeking, rule-making and institution-building behaviour (Levy & Rothenberg, 2002; Scott, 1998). And finally, we shed light on the extent to which multistakeholder partnerships lead to substantive action, which goes beyond attracting media attention at their launch.

 To analyze these aspects we have compiled a database using archival data from company reports, press releases, newspaper articles, and responses to the Carbon Disclosure Project. This database consists of a wide range of multistakeholder partnerships in which Global 500 companies have become engaged over the past few years. Based on an exploratory analysis of coding the qualitative data we collected, we will show what kinds of partnerships companies develop in response to climate change, how they try to find a balance between the political and economic imperative, and whether there is any substance in these partnerships and/or fit with their overall strategy. We question to what extent it can be expected that the approach towards multistakeholder partnerships followed by these companies might actually lead to any substantive activities that improve their impact on the global climate.