So, it’s January 2019, and the term ‘purpose’ to denote a business or brand’s role beyond profit-making has been in popular use for approximately three or four years. I have to admit, I was pretty sceptical when I first heard it being bandied about. I even wrote a blog about it speculating whether it was just vision relabelled, only with a wholly unrealistic panacean expectation attached. I was concerned at the time that the term was conflating business’ long-established mission or vision statement, with a set of entirely altruistic, almost evangelical aims attempting to elevate business well above its true role.

Since then, a plethora of purposeful brands have popped up, ‘CEO activism’ has taken hold, brands have been ‘taking stands’ and corporate involvement in political campaigning has become de rigueur. What was previously the domain of the diligent but dull old sustainability department, seems to have been taken over by the Evil Marketing folks, the keen-eyed Brand Champions and the PR Flacks, whose cynical nose for what we will be liked, shared, retweeted and memed is feared to be debasing the purist ethical intentions of the few true believers.

This sudden rush in purpose popularity seems to have been the cause of a recent backlash against the very term itself. The accusation is the ‘purpose paradigm’ is merely an excuse for those who’ve always had power (an elevated few in the corporate and financial world) to retain it under the guise that only free market dynamics will solve the world’s most intractable socio-economic ills. Seducing the all-important millennial workforce with fanciful tales of how commercial and societal aims can unite under one happy ‘corporate purpose mantra’ is merely a cynical tactic to retain the traditional centre of gravity with existing powerbrokers. Or so some commentators are saying.

This broadside has been so fierce and unexpected that has caught those of us who’ve been working ‘on the inside’ of businesses championing positive social and environmental change for some time by surprise.  I admit I have been initially sceptical about the appropriation of the term ‘purpose” and its use with relative abandon by those people who had previously paid little attention to the serious-faced sustainability people in the corner of the room who have been diligently worrying about the ethical practices of the business for some years.  However, we all need to take a step back for a moment to consider what the implications are if we simply dismiss 100% of business’ efforts to ‘be a force for good’ and contribute to, as opposed to inhibiting the achievement of improved environmental and social goods.

Just because some businesses can be accused of what we used to call ‘putting lipstick on a hog’ when it comes to purpose, doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

Call me old-fashioned, but I strongly believe that the role of business is to solve challenges through innovation, whilst creating employment, economic prosperity and delivering useful services to the world. The successful generation of revenues and profits is the only way a business can continue to operate and thrive, so I have always been a sustainability professional who believes vehemently in the need for all social and environmental strategies employed by companies to contribute to the long term strategic and financial success of those businesses. We should not be shocked, disapproving or distrustful if a business sees a profit-making or positive reputational opportunity that can arise from making positive social or environmental changes to its own operations. We should welcome it, because it is only when strategies create tangible positive  business outcomes that they will be sustained in organisations.

What is really at the heart of this controversy is the (unsurprising) appearance of insincere, inauthentic or poorly thought-through corporate efforts to jump on the purpose bandwagon – in other words “purpose-wash“. Not a new concept either, I believe purpose-wash occurs when companies conflate the strong signal being sent from their employees and customers for them to ‘have a purpose beyond profit’ with the need to try and reinvent themselves overnight. The recent furore over the Gillette Advert is a case in point. This misguided effort put rhetoric ahead of actual corporate transformation – grandstanding on a topic such as gender stereotyping without any real substance behind it.

So what should business be doing?

Business does has a vital role to play in solving our most intractable global challenges from climate change to plastic pollution to poverty. Business has  been specifically called on by the global international development community and national governments specifically to intervene and help make faster progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement.  Every business need to play its part by elevating its social and environmental practices and standards across the board, setting more ambitious targets for improvement, and measuring and reporting their progress more effectively.   These are the imperatives, the bare minimum any business needs to do to retain its license to operate in today’s world. 

The last thing we need is to let business off the hook here because we fear that the opportunity to appear altruistic will allow them to maintain the status quo. That’s just perverse thinking

When it comes to going beyond these minimum standards and having a real and tangible positive impact, business must look inwardly first – the isolation of a business’s particular unique area of influence is key. What is the specific societal or environmental problem that your business is uniquely qualified to help solve? What are the natural resources your business relies on most heavily and how will you work to protect them better? What technologies or skills do you own that could be harnessed more effectively to achieve a positive social outcome? Where are you located and what issues face the community where your employees live and their children go to school, and how can you align your business goals with  making it thrive? These are the questions businesses need to ask themselves.  And the programmes they create -the real changes they make inside their organisations to they can begin to track tangible progress against these challenges will be how they can create a truly purposeful business. Minus the wash.