Your Go-To Source On
Purpose And Sustainability
Group Head of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Sainsburys
I completely agree with this paper and would add that to help decision making, the organisation needs to be able to measure its impact on all the environmental and societal assets it draws from.
Author of The Wellbeing Purpose
A sustainable purpose based on wellbeing is a powerful aspiration for any organisation. It’s fantastic to see the wellbeing of all stakeholders at the heart of this pioneering initiative
Members of the round table held at Scott Brownrigg Architects in London in November 2018, in alphabetical order:
Co-Founder & Chief Pollinator, Volans Ventures
Former SVP Communications & Sustainability, Unilever
Emeritus Professor Cranfield School of Management, co-author of All In:The Future of Business Leadership
University of Plymouth, Co-Author of The What, the Why and the How of Purpose
Chair, Director of Business Strategy, Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership
COO, Blueprint for Better Business
Director, Dialogue Consultancy Collective Intelligence
Founding Director, Forum for the Future
CEO of Kin&Co, Purpose Practitioner and Thought Leader
Sustainability Professional and Author of Business in the Community’s The Purpose Toolkit
Executive Director, Purpose, Edelman
CEO, Blueprint for Better Business
EMEA Managing Partner Omnicom ONE HUNDRED Agency & Co-Author of The Power of Purpose
Sustainability and Purpose Consultant
The Challenge - Why Purpose and Sustainability?
This website reflects the shared insights, view and experience of twelve purpose and sustainability advisors who met in November 2018. It aims to guide leaders and contribute to the dialogue on how best to integrate thinking and practice on organisational purpose and sustainability.
The Decisive Decade
The wider context in which companies are operating is rapidly changing. Recent findings, such as the UN IPCC report, make it very clear that the 2020s will be the decisive decade if we are to avoid the catastrophic consequences of runaway climate change. The World Economic Forum’s report also highlighted profound social instability and environmental risks such as extreme weather events, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, to the extent that according to AXA’s CEO, a "plus-4degrees world is not insurable." Such trends will profoundly reshape the economy and society and ultimately determine the viability of business itself. These imminent interconnected ‘global challenges’ that need to be resolved to deliver a better future for all, are addressed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Addressing these challenges and avoiding ‘runaway collapse’ will require a co-ordinated, systemic response across civil society and both the public and private sectors (i). However, the lack of adequate global legislation and standards to provide clear ‘rules of the game’ for a viable global economy coincides with growing nationalist and populist politics. And while capital markets are waking up to these global challenges, they continue to operate in largely short-sighted and dysfunctional ways. The misallocation of capital results from a failure to properly integrate environmental and social costs into companies’ profit and loss statements (ii).
The Business Imperative
The result is that the unintended consequences of business-as-usual are undermining the very viability of business. In this regulatory vacuum, businesses can no longer leave it to markets, governments or a relatively weak civil society to respond to these challenges. It’s in businesses’ interests to take an urgent and proactive role in delivering the transformational change required.
The immediacy of these global challenges exerts an imperative on any company that wants to adapt to a viable future, as no business can thrive long-term in an unsustainable world. Businesses need to demonstrate that they are a force for good. And people expect them to: a view amplified by technology and a level of connectivity that enables transparency and much faster scaling of citizen action (iii).
On the one hand, most companies feel compelled to maintain profit as the primary goal, based on the assumption that this is compatible with continued access to the talent, capital, customers and trust they need. On the other hand, they are increasingly expected to recover the mindset that puts people and society at the heart of business success - and then reflect this in the core of the business. Profit then becomes the consequence and lifeblood of a well-run business, not its purpose. The concepts of organisational purpose and sustainability are central to delivering the long-term benefits of this second option, through (iv):
identifying long-term value creation both for the organisation and for society, in ways that support the planet;
improving business performance and differentiation;
building trust and reputation with stakeholders, especially customers;
attracting and retaining talent; and increasing employee motivation and wellbeing.
The Opportunity - A Sustainable Purpose
Companies that pursue profit maximisation as the primary goal during the 2020s will struggle to remain viable, let alone succeed. Those that operate today in a way that undermines our common good will ultimately fail. For companies to thrive for the long-term, purpose and sustainability must go hand in hand. Consumers, regulators, civil society and capital markets will, and already are, demanding it.
Purpose and Sustainability
These concepts are complementary and mutually dependent.
Sustainability frameworks (v) have defined the planetary boundaries and basic human requirements that provide an enduring ‘safe space’ for sectors and organisations to operate within. However, sustainability risks being perceived as a peripheral technical function of a business that is still misunderstood by most leaders.
Organisational purpose (vi) has the potential to galvanise stakeholders around a positive and inspiring reason why a company exists, unlocking the human need for meaning by enriching the lives of others. However, if a purpose fails to benefit society or ignores global challenges, there is the risk of a credibility gap.
A Sustainable Purpose
But combined, a sustainable purpose (vii) is a meaningful, enduring reason for an organization to exist that provides solutions to global challenges (viii), or benefits society, in a way that sustains the social and environmental systems we rely upon (ix). This positively expresses how the core business creates ongoing value across its wider network, by contributing to a sustainable future.
A sustainable purpose aligns the core identity and actions of the company around benefitting society and creating a sustainable world that connects with people’s desire to improve their own and others’ wellbeing in the long-term. How wellbeing is improved depends both on the purpose and the quality of relationships the business creates and sustains. This can be achieved by driving social change (x) or through addressing human dignity and the common good across all stakeholder groups ranging from suppliers, employees and citizens.
There are two main risks to living out a sustainable purpose: dilution, where the concepts are watered-down; and divergence, where the management of purpose becomes fragmented across different agendas and teams.
To successfully develop and implement a sustainable purpose, companies need to:
Properly understand the wider ever-changing impacts of global challenges on the company and the company’s influence on them, using a robust sustainability framework (xi).
Use this understanding to inform the choice of long-term sustainable purpose for the company (xii).
Develop strategic responses to deliver its purpose at two levels:
how the company will directly and indirectly contribute to wellbeing (xiii) sustainably across its entire supply chain through to the use (and disposal) of the product/service, and;
how the company will shape and influence the wider sector/systems to underpin ongoing success (such as regulation; market mechanisms and empowering citizens);
Integrate the purpose into the culture, governance, commercial strategy, management and operations of the company so that it informs decision-making at all levels.
Does your company have a sustainable purpose?
We’d love to know what you think, so do join the dialogue.
Recent Articles on Purpose and Sustainability
Putting purpose into practice: 5 "dont's" and 3 "dos", 11th March 2020, by Charles Wookey
The Business Case for Purposeful Business, 9th March 2020, by Alex Edman's
Alan Barlow’s Linkedin article offering insights into how to implement a purpose: ‘How to deliver a "Sustainable Purpose Company": A CEO's experience’
Richard Aldwinckle, Piffle or pertinent: Does your company have a meaningful purpose? July 2019
Blueprint for a better business article explaining their view of the definition in ‘How do purpose and sustainability fit together?’ July 2019
Larry Fink's (CEO of BlackRock, an American multinational investment management corporation. BlackRock is the largest money-management firm in the world with more than $6 trillion in assets under management ) recent letter to CEOs calling for businesses to pursue purpose and profit.
Science-Based Targets, for carbon
Purpose Frameworks, Toolkits & Initiatives
Purpose Articles/Think Pieces
Purpose in Practice: Clarity, Authenticity and the Spectre of Purpose Wash, Claremont Communications, 2016
HBR article - the business case for purpose, 2015
Project ROI Report: Defining Competitive Advantage and Financial Advantages of CSR and Sustainability, 2015
Culture of Purpose - Building Business Confidence, Driving Growth, 2014, Deloitte
The Wellbeing Purpose, Richard Hardyment, Routledge, 2019
Prosperity, Colin Mayer, Oxford University Press, 2018
All In: The Future of Business Leadership, David Grayson, Mark Lee and Chris Coulter, Routledge, 2018
The Purpose Revolution, John Izzo and Jeff Vanderwielen, Berrett-Koehler, 2018
Benefit Corporation Law and Governance; pursuing profit with purpose, Frederick H. Alexander, Berrett-Koehler, 2018
Purpose and Impact, Anita Hoffmann, Routledge , 2018
The Purpose Effect: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization, Dan Pontefract, Figure 1 Publishing Inc, 2018
The Power of Purpose, John O’Brien and Andrew Cave, Pearson, 2017
Core: How A Single Organising Idea Can Change Business for Good, Neil Gaught, Routledge, 2017
Start with Why, Simon Sinek, Portfolio Penguin, 2009, see also his TED talk:
(iii) Such as the Extinction Rebellion ( in London and the climate strikes in schools are described more broadly in the 2018 book “New Power” by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms.
(iv) ‘The what, the why and the how of Purpose’, p15-17, CMI, July 2018 & The Purpose Toolkit, Business in the Community, p4
(v) Such as: the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Five Capitals, Net Positive, Doughnut Economics, Stockholm Resilience Centre’s planetary boundaries, Science-Based Targets, Future-Fit Business Benchmark, The Natural Step’s sustainability principles.
(vi) ‘The what, the why and the how of Purpose’, p4, CMI, July 2018
(vii) This supports the recommendations of Professor Colin Mayer in his book Prosperity (Oxford University Press, 2018) that suggests the purpose of business is “to produce profitable solutions to the problems of people and planet, and not profit from producing problems for people or planet.”
(viii) Summarised in the UN Sustainable Development Goals:
(ix) As defined by a robust framework such as; the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Five Capitals, Net Positive Principles, Doughnut Economics, Stockholm Resilience Centre’s planetary boundaries, Science-Based Targets, Future-Fit Business Benchmark or The Natural Step’s sustainability principles.
(x) Blueprint for Better Business’ Framework and Principles set out key stakeholder groups
(xi) Such as: the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Five Capitals, Net Positive, Doughnut Economics, Stockholm Resilience Centre’s planetary boundaries, Science-Based Targets, Future-Fit Business Benchmark, The Natural Step’s sustainability principles.
(xii) Frameworks to develop a purpose include: Blueprint for a Better Business Principles and Framework and The Purpose Toolkit by Business in the Community.
(xiii) Wellbeing is a term increasingly used in international circles to describe the highest level of positive human outcomes. It is connected to the fulfilment of human needs (core to the definition of sustainability) and the achievement of a ‘good life’. For further reading see: