Sustainability has fast become the buzzword of the global drinks industry. In recognition of this, we welcome Ben Cooper as our latest monthly commentator, to consider the importance of sustainability around the world. Here, Ben considers the need for the two sides of the argument to come together, even if they appear poles apart.

It is widely held that multi-stakeholder partnership and collaboration are crucial in addressing daunting challenges such as climate change, food security and improving living standards in the developing world.

As sustainability has risen up the corporate agenda and consumers become more mindful of firms' ethical credentials, seeking to be 'part of the solution' is becoming ever more important to companies. However, their engagement represents much more than simply participating in a collective initiative and reaping a reputational benefit.

There is increasingly broad acknowledgment that multinational companies can be ideal partners, bringing not only financial input but other attributes such as market knowledge, geographical reach and specialist expertise to bear.

Steadily, the NGO community has become more embracing of corporate engagement and collaboration. Of course, there is a spectrum here. Some NGOs still feel partnership with companies will undermine their ability to hold them critically to account. NGOs across the board remain acutely aware of the credibility benefit that companies gain from partnering with respected, independent third parties and are vigilant about being exploited.

Nevertheless, in many instances development agencies and NGOs want to partner with companies because they know they can be effective engineers of change. The beverage sector is no exception, as the latest just-drinks management briefing on environmental sustainability in the brewing industry clearly shows.

And yet, with regard to the pressing problem of alcohol-related harm, cooperation and partnership - or even dialogue - between health NGOs and the alcohol industry remains extremely limited.

Indeed, a large number of health NGOs have united to form the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance (GAPA). These groups retain an extremely sceptical stance towards industry engagement on alcohol harm and hold highly-critical views of the industry's general record on conducting business responsibly.

Expecting NGOs to view an industry's ethical track-record as favourably as the companies themselves may be fanciful, but retaining a healthy scepticism and keeping pressure on companies need not exclude the possibility of dialogue or, on a selective basis, partnership.

Greenpeace, for example, could in no sense be branded a corporate poodle. However, a Greenpeace representative will address the forthcoming conference of the Roundtable on Responsible Palm Oil (RSPO), a multi-stakeholder initiative that has attracted criticism from environmental NGOs including Greenpeace itself.

As examples from the brewing sector underline, cooperation and partnership between NGOs and industry stem from common purpose, and a shared belief in the importance of an issue, not unanimity of view.

A beverage company may have different reasons from a campaign group for viewing water stewardship as important, but their motivations need not be identical for them to be able to work together. A company's primary reasons may be to ensure a high-quality and reliable supply and avoid opprobrium and political hostility by adversely impacting a local watershed.

So, the company could be acting out of self-interest. Where does corporate self-interest, therefore, begin and end? Within the 'people, profit, planet' paradigm of sustainability, that is a redundant question. At the heart of the health NGOs' opposition to industry engagement on alcohol policy is the conflict of interest they believe exists between companies' economic sustainability and an objective view on responsible consumption. 

However, while maximising their potential commercially and financially has to be a defining priority for publicly-owned companies, an alcohol company cannot be deemed to have a sustainable business model if it does not take due account of alcohol misuse. Any moral considerations aside, the escalation of alcohol harm increases the likelihood of tighter and possibly punitive regulation. 

Worse still, if a company's practices directly contribute to abuse, there is massive potential for reputational harm. In short, it pertains to companies' licences to operate, representing a direct parallel with water stewardship.

The NGOs that remain so implacably opposed to industry engagement are peopled in many instances by highly-qualified professionals who know their fields and are passionately committed to addressing alcohol harm. The dogged stance they have taken towards an extremely powerful alcohol sector that knows the lobbying game as well as any and has the money to play at its top table, is testament to that commitment. However, it could be argued that they define commercial interest too narrowly and have not taken sufficient account of how sustainability in its broadest sense is now seen by multinationals.

In fact, sustainable business is precisely about identifying conflicts. There are always potential collisions between commercial exigencies and other considerations. Corporate sustainability strategies are about holding these in balance, recognising where commercial imperatives risk unwanted impacts and striving to avoid them. And, in any materiality matrix that alcohol producers draw up, responsible consumption is always identified as the predominant sustainability issue.

The lead from the top is also important. In the environment field, United Nations institutions such as the Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) exhibit an openness to industry engagement not always evident at the World Health Organization (WHO).

The drinks industry has generally avoided public confrontation with the WHO, the spat last year over WHO director-general Margaret Chan's much-publicised letter to the British Medical Journal being something of an exception. Rather, it has sought to retain open and constructive channels of communication with the WHO Secretariat.

The degree of hostility to commercial operators at the WHO would be hotly contested by the different lobbies, possibly further underlining the polarised nature of the debate. Interestingly, however, engagement with non-state actors is included in the reform process currently underway at the WHO.

Whether inter-governmental institutions or member states can foster a better relationship between health NGOs and the alcohol industry remains to be seen. The UK Government's Public Health Responsibility Deal conspicuously failed to do so. The EU Commission has arguably had a little more success with its Alcohol and Health Forum.

However, in order for the multi-stakeholder cooperation increasingly being seen in the environmental field to be mirrored in the battle against alcohol misuse, the longstanding impasse between health NGOs and the alcohol industry would have to come to an end.

On current evidence, this seems extremely unlikely.