Sustain6 BLOG

It’s Just Business.

Or Is It?

The Rise of The Purpose Driven Company.

By Steve Quirk

In August 2019 the Business Roundtable (the Illuminati of Fortune 500 CEOs) updated its definition of business purpose to include obligations not just to the shareholders but to all stakeholders including employees, customers, suppliers and communities. The announcement states it simply: “The American dream is alive, but fraying.” The surprising admission in light of record profitability and stock market prices highlights the shortcomings of an economic system where not everyone participates (50% of Americans don’t own stocks and 10% of Americans lack health insurance). In many ways Capitalism has “won” the war of economic ideas, but is capitalism capable of redefining itself and curbing its excesses?
The jury is still out on this, but there is good evidence this happening. The emergence of for profit “benefit corporations” like Patagonia (“We are in business to save our home planet”) and purpose driven organizations like Tom’s might in other times be 1-off curiousities, but the shifting landscape of corporate activism indicates something more is going on. In 2015 and 2016, when Indiana and North Carolina passed their infamous bathroom laws major corporate players like Salesforce threw a stake in the ground and made a strong stance for gender equality. Salesforce CEO (and newly annointed corporate crusader) Mark Benioff said, “Employees are stakeholders, customers are stakeholders, partners, the environment is a stakeholder, our community, our homeless in San Francisco are stakeholders — all for Salesforce. We have to look out for everyone.” Benioff is making a big push regarding the environment with Sustainability Cloud to turbocharge the nascent world of carbon accounting. He’s also personally supporting which aims to plant 1 trillion trees and has signed up 300 corporate sponsors.
Most corporations have been historically reluctant to publicly weigh in on politically charged issues (they are often busy behind the scenes though!), but in a society where information and facts get manipulated for narrow purposes, there is an increasing need and desire for principled leadership. For better or worse, America has long viewed government power cautiously. The Business Roundtable announcement essentially provides cover for this new type of activism that may come at the cost of shareholders. Microsoft (and Bill Gates!), previously the poster child of corporate dominanc
e and monopoly, is now emphasizing its soft side and vying for leadership on sustainability. They were just named to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) A list again for the 7th year in a row and just made a huge announcement with a goal of net carbon negative by 2030.

Is it a calling to higher “purpose” that is driving this corporate renaissance of companies like Walmart, Nike, Unilever and Tesla? I like to think so, but then again I’m a glass half-full kind of guy and a surfer who is inspired by Yvon Chouinard’s (Patagonia’s founder) corporate manifesto Let My People Go Surfing

One of the most prominent examples of this activism is Nike’s bold embrace of Colin Kaepernick. Given the hyper charged politics of his movement, Nike could easily have sidestepped the issue, but chose to do almost the exact opposite and also signed Kaepernick to a shoe deal. Nike understands its customers and understands its most valuable asset is its brand. Nike, the largest shoe company in the world, is evolving. Woe to the laggards.
Younger generations led by the Millenials are much more technically savvy and connected than previous generations and starting to flex their financial muscle and leadership. See no evil, hear no evil just doesn’t cut it anymore. Millennials will make up 65% of the workforce globally by 2025 and the environment tops their lists of concerns – maybe it’s because they’ll have to deal with the repercussions of the climate crisis.
Corporate America is listening and starting to recognize that sustainability is not a cost center but an innovation one. As Tim Cook of Apple has said “I think it takes the public sector, the private sector, and academia working together to solve these problems. Climate change is not going to be solved by government.”
It’s a good exercise for all companies to reexamine their purpose and missions. At Sustain 6, our mission “To mobilize employees into climate champions who help accelerate a sustainable transformation at the corporate, community and national level” is driven by our purpose To build a sustainable planet for all.”
Cheers to the rise of the purpose driven company.

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