As immense disruption continues around the globe, the spotlight on the role of business in tackling social and environmental challenges is intensifying. Here, Dr Sally Uren, Chief Executive of Forum for the Future, outlines why now is the time to re-evaluate corporate purpose.
The 2020s have begun with an extreme turbulence that no one saw coming: a global public health crisis compounding the already-daunting social and environmental challenges central to the sustainability movement. But as the economic, social and environmental fallout from COVID-19 continues, all rules are being rewritten; and momentum to re-evaluate the role of business in tackling the defining issues of our times is building. But why now, and just how can a business re-evaluate its purpose to put sustainability at its heart?
Why re-evaluate now?
Firstly, COVID-19 has created a portal into a different future in which we can rebalance the fundamentals of our global economy. The deep interconnections between the economic, social and planetary systems on which we rely have been laid bare, lending weight to a truth that has always been there, but rarely accepted: Planetary, human and economic health are one and the same. One cannot thrive without the others, and each must be equally prioritised.
Second: The pandemic has also shown us that the current systems upon which we rely are neither capable of delivering the solutions we need for our grand challenges, nor are they resilient when hit by them. In fact, COVID-19 has shown us just how vulnerable we are to what is only the first shock of many more to come.
Third: Citizens — which include company employees and customers — are finding their voice. From demonstrating outrage at the climate emergency to marching the streets to protest against deep structural racism and gender inequality, they are calling time on the harmful and unethical practices that have created the deeply unsustainable situation in which we find ourselves.
The stage is set for change
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With this deep disruption has come an urgently needed possibility for change. As outlined in Forum for the Future’s latest Future of Sustainability report, there are multiple and extremely different trajectories ahead of us — each determined by the actions we take today. But only one of these, Transform, has the potential to radically change the ways in which we live and work at the scale and pace needed.
Transform is based on a mindset that planetary, human and economic health are one and the same. A mindset in which we see the goals of our global economy broadened to include a desire to see both people and planet prosper through a just transition. It’s here we see new, regenerative business models; the scaling of nature-based solutions and regenerative practices; and businesses and government working collaboratively and non-competitively to address our immense structural inequalities and the climate emergency head on.
It’s a compelling vision — and it gets us to the fourth, arguably the most important, why behind the need to re-evaluate company purpose and culture right now: They are both critical to delivering the transformational change needed for a company to not only survive this current crisis, but to emerge stronger.
Let’s be clear on what we mean by purpose: For me, purpose should be an expression of how a company can contribute to a just and regenerative future.
As 2021 unfolds, we have an unparalleled opportunity to reconfigure the systems we rely on — from food and health to energy and mobility — so that the creation of social and environmental value becomes a key goal of each.
It’s about looking beyond the positive economic outcomes that have incentivised so many businesses to date — equally prioritising stakeholder returns, as well as shareholder returns (with nature and society being critical stakeholders).
Corporate purpose can and must become increasingly bold and ambitious, with a goal of systems change at its heart. Three Ds are critical to ensuring this.
Diagnose, Design and Deliver
Purpose must be supported by great:
1. Diagnosis. A diagnosis must clearly define where a company can make the biggest positive difference. This necessitates all businesses building their understanding of the world around us as a set of interconnected systems, and using that to create interventions capable of delivering multiple benefits across multiple systems.
Consider a pharmaceutical company, which is well placed to understand the connections between climate and health, and to then play a role in solving for challenges at this intersection — for example, by reducing its emissions to improve both air quality and human health.
2. Design. A company must then design a strategy with real potential to drive transformational change at key leverage points. Interventions must be both catalytic and self-sustaining. In particular, consider the enabling conditions that will determine long-term success, from policy frameworks and finance to behaviour change and public acceptance.
3. Delivery. A company’s delivery strategy must ultimately focus on delivering systems change. Far from being fixed and linear, delivery must be adaptive and emergent, capable of embracing and navigating complexity and disruption.
Critically, the corporate purpose and culture of the future — and arguably, now — will need new mindsets and new skills.
On mindsets, we all need to understand and work with the interconnections of people, planet and economic health. While on skills, we need to embrace futures thinking in ways that consider not only the risks and opportunities that come with change today, but the risks and opportunities associated with multiple futures. How can we constantly challenge our assumptions and work with both enabling and resisting forces?
What it all comes down to…
This new frame for corporate purpose is underpinned by the ultimate business case: If we don’t create the conditions in which people and planet can prosper, no business can be successful.
To quote science writer William Gibson: “The future is here, all around us — just not evenly distributed.” The features of the Transform trajectory are already here, many at the niche of our systems. We now need to bring them into the mainstream. This is how systems change. This is the opportunity in front of us. An ambitious purpose is one of the keys to seizing it — and in doing so, walking through the portal created by COVID-19 to a more sustainable world.