In the second part of this week's Sustainability Spotlight, Ben Cooper looks at debate, collaboration and partnership on sustainability objectives, and in particular the challenge of engaging constructively with external stakeholders.

An event at the White House last month provided further evidence of the drinks industry's concerted commitment to sustainability. The leadership of the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable (BIER), the technical coalition uniting 20 major drinks corporations aiming to drive progress on sustainability, was invited to participate in the White House Water Summit, convened by the Obama Administration to mark UN World Water Day.

While many sectors have increased cooperation on sustainability in recent years, the drink's industry's good record on partnership goes back much further. For example, Revico, a waste-to-energy joint venture in Cognac, was established more than 40 years ago. The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), meanwhile, launched its environmental strategy in 2009.

Meanwhile, the fact that organisations such as the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins de Bordeaux (CIVB) and the Bureau National du Cognac (BNIC) represent agricultural suppliers and end-users makes their contribution in the sustainability arena of particular value, and in tune with current moves across food and beverage sectors to work more closely with suppliers on sustainable agriculture.

There is no shortage, then, of inter-company collaboration on sustainability within the industry.

However, debating and collaborating with non-industry players is just as crucial and, here, progress has been more questionable. There is sadly a virtual stand-off between the drinks industry and most health NGOs and medical organisations, but the level of non-industry representation at last month's sustainability conference convened by sustainability think-tank Innovation Forum suggests there could be room for improvement in the environmental area too.

The conference was well-supported by the industry, again reflecting the level of inter-company cooperation, but NGO participation was markedly lower than for previous IF conferences on palm oil, sugar and seafood.

Were they put off, perhaps, by the choice of venue? The event was hosted by Diageo at its west London headquarters. Whether this reinforced a feeling among potential non-industry delegates that this was a drinks industry conference, or indeed reflected a wider failing that industry discussion on sustainability tends more often to be between companies than amongst a broader audience, is hard to tell.

If the choice of an industry rather than a 'neutral' venue was really a decisive - or divisive - factor, that itself may tell its own story and suggest cooperation between NGOs and industry has some way to go.

This is most crucial in relation to water stewardship at a local level, and there is evidence of more cooperation with NGOs in this area. A representative of a leading drinks corporation said inter-company collaboration had brought progress in data-sharing, benchmarking and establishing protocols, but at the local level a different sort of collaboration is required and the involvement of external partners is vital.

"Water is very local so, in different parts of the world, it will look very different in terms of our solution," he told the conference. "It's probably inappropriate that we should lead many of these collaborations because we have such a self-interest. But, it's good to have an honest broker that can pull them together and make sure there's a level playing-field for all those different interests."

Where the drinks industry also needs NGO collaboration for its efforts to be seen as credible is in the realm of responsible consumption. In this context, the effective impasse that exists between the industry and most health NGOs is a constant frustration. While there is some partnership with alcohol addiction charities, many health NGOs are simply opposed to industry involvement in any discussions on alcohol policy and addiction.

The polarisation in the alcohol policy debate has been a problem for many years and the lack of representation from health NGOs at the IF conference shows the situation is not improving. None of the speakers on a panel discussing alcohol and society at the IF conference mentioned the lack of rapport with health NGOs until prompted. When pressed, the response spoke to the rather resigned position the industry appears to have adopted, one speaker bemoaning the "dogmatic" position of "anti-alcohol NGOs".

It was pointed out that opposition stems in part from prohibitionist and temperance movement tendencies within the health lobby. However, while these allegiances are a factor, there is a broad array of health NGOs and medical bodies participating in the alcohol policy debate and scepticism of the alcohol industry is fairly widespread.

The same speaker expressed the desire to establish better links with medical organisations. "Even with doctors," he continued, "it's difficult to have a dialogue. I wish we could find ways of making more progress there. If they could accept that we also - like them - want to reduce misuse, we could work together because they tend to be data-driven."

Again, the onus here appeared to be on the medics to "accept" the alcohol industry, but the approach has to be more proactive than that. Any suggestion that this is not the industry's problem but the NGOs' must be banished. While an inherently-negative stance from health NGOs may be the root cause of this impasse, its debilitating effects on debate and partnership are a problem for the industry to address, however intractable it may seem.

Indeed, one of the main takeaways from the entire conference was the need to build engagement with external stakeholders. Nowhere is this more relevant than in regard to alcohol abuse.

Successful engagement with campaigners on sustainability issues depends in no small part on open and frank discussion and a move away from carefully-finessed positions expressed in fluent, corporate affairs speak. The IF event was held under the Chatham House Rule, whereby neither the names nor the affiliation of those speaking could be reported, to encourage forthright debate. While it is impossible to tell how the discussions might have gone had the Chatham House proviso not been made, aside from the occasional gentle jibe and a little indelicate language, there appeared to be very little said that delegates would have to worry about saying on the record. And, that wasn't because it was bland and platitudinous. Far from it; it was a day of thought-provoking discussion.

This may suggest we are reaching a stage of maturity in discussions about sustainability where all parties, even multinational companies, are discussing complex challenges and their potential solutions more freely. Some might argue that these are important questions about which people should be free to say what they think and prepared to stand by their opinions, and anonymity should be left for the Penthouse Forum.

For the first part of this two-part Sustainability Spotlight, click here