Last week saw the second Sustainable Brands conference hosted in Kuala Lumpur, focusing on the theme of Activating Purpose. Purpose – possibly one of the most over-used and broadly defined words out there right now. Yet, it was a great hook on which to peg a conversation about hopes and ambitions for sustainability, as well as the current performance of brands and businesses in Malaysia with sustainability aspirations.
For the purpose of the discussions about, well, purpose, let’s take the broad definition of purpose as a brand’s or business’s strategy for both creating value, and simultaneously creating positive change in the system in which the brand or business operates. Life Buoy is a great example here; a clear purpose around access to hygiene has underpinned both the growth of the brand, and improved hand-washing behaviours in children, particularly those under the age of five.
Why purpose, and why now? For the simple reason that we live in a rapidly changing world, where a set of environmental, social and economic mega-trends are shaping our context in ways that mean a straight line continuum of business-as-usual does not guarantee a sustainable future. Some call the period we are in now one of creative disruption, others turn to the military and co-opt the term VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). The more stoic amongst us may call it the fourth industrial revolution. Whatever moniker is used, it’s a fact that we face a set of sustainability challenges that will require huge ingenuity and innovation if we stand a chance of delivering the Sustainable Development Goals.
Turning to Malaysia, there is a set of very specific trends that shape the operating context of this ambitious and dynamic country. There are the environmental challenges, from the very well-documented loss of biodiversity, to water scarcity - fuelled by a prolonged dry spell - and now the full impact of El Niño.
Then there’s climate change, and not just the usual story of environmental disruption. It might also be too hot to work - rising temperatures and extreme heat stress are likely to undermine labour capacity in Southeast Asian nations over the next 30 years, with forecasts that, within a generation, the economies of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines could be as much as a quarter less productive than they are today.
Staying with the theme of work, Malaysia’s ‘brain drain,’ already a serious problem, is accelerating. Nearly 10 percent of the country’s most highly educated workers have left Malaysia to seek better opportunities elsewhere. Malaysia is also facing the challenges of the developed world, with one of the highest rates of obesity in Asia, driving up rates of diabetes, heart disease and other lifestyle diseases.
Against this backdrop, there is a subtle change in approach to sustainability when it comes to brands and business. What was striking last week was a low-key but sustained rejection of CSR as an adequate response from brands and business to a rapidly changing and sometimes challenging context. This isn’t a new phenomenon; in other parts of the world, CSR has been rightly binned as a strategic response to the need for sustainable development by many organisations. What’s interesting is that for Malaysia, there’s an opportunity to leap frog the boring and inadequate CSR phase, and move straight to sustainable business. What I heard last week tells me that purpose might be the right framing to make this jump.
Why? Because purpose is not just about product. Identifying purpose means thinking through brand promise, the underlying business model and the enabling value network around the organisation.
Purpose can also be easily linked to where an organisation can make the biggest material difference, and means not trying to do everything. For Tenga Nasional Berhad, Malaysia’s largest power company, its purpose of creating a ‘better, brighter future’ means scaling renewables to give access to energy in remote parts of Malaysia, but stopping short of those areas with high biodiversity.
Purpose can be an expression of a business’s contribution to a sustainable future. And this clarity of intent can act as a compass to navigate the disruption and complexity in the world around us. As one speaker put it, purpose is a way of ‘avoiding death’ – in other words, a route to resilience.
And enabling purpose? In other words, ways of moving from words to action? Here the conversation was rich in practical suggestions: collaborate with the right stakeholders, including the activist NGOs; make sure there is a good understanding of the local context and the relevance of purpose within that; be prepared to disrupt the business; and be prepared to be constructively discontent – accept imperfection, and strive to do better next time.
This last point brings me to one of the most striking themes of the conversation in KL: Activating purpose starts with the individual. Clarity of individual values and vision is a prerequisite to creating big change. Mix this with passion and bold ambition, and the combination of personal and organisational purpose becomes incredibly powerful. Which is why, in a country such as Malaysia, ambitious for its own future, purpose may well be fully activated sooner than we think.