Sustainability leaders craft 10-point plan to revamp corporate purpose

Businesses in the vanguard of sustainability, including Unilever, Interface, Ikea and DSM, have come together to craft a new set of recommendations as to how the wider corporate community can embed a purpose aimed at tackling the climate crisis and social inequalities across the business.

Sustainability leaders craft 10-point plan to revamp corporate purpose

Convened through the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL), the sustainability leaders have captured ideas on embedding purpose across a business in a new report published on Thursday.

The report lists ten recommendations for businesses to consider in order to embed a sense of purpose across an entire organisation. Crucially, the recommendations reflect on the current situation of being faced with numerous systemic challenges as companies emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. These include the climate crisis and growing inequality. However, the report concludes that these challenges provide an opportunity for corporate strategies to be aligned with a long-term transition to a sustainable economy.

CISL’s director of business strategy and author of the report, Ben Kellard said: “There has been a lot of debate about corporate purpose, but less about how it’s done.  We have sought to capture how leaders have especially aligned corporate purpose with a transition to a sustainable economy.”

The 10 recommendations are:

1) Take an ‘outside-in’ view that engages external stakeholders

This would enable businesses to consider the full scope of its value chain and the “breadth of issues that impact it now and in the future”, with a particular focus on social and environmental impacts and dependencies

2) Take an ‘inside-out’ view that engages employees

The report notes that involving employees early on with any new purpose or strategy will “help to build their commitment to any new or modified purpose, strategy, culture and values”

3) Engage the Board to align purpose and strategy and broaden ownership

On this, the report notes “ensuring each Executive Director has a clear role, ownership and accountability over the strategic areas that align with their function, both in operational terms and in areas of thought leadership, will make integration and strategic impact more efficient and effective”.

4) Integrate the purpose into strategies and objective-setting

By aligning purpose with specific objectives and targets, the report notes that purpose can “come alive” by linking it to the delivery of commercial solutions that internal benefit the entire value chain, as well as consumers and stakeholders.

5) Align rewards and incentives

In order to guide employees towards the aims of new purpose-led strategies, the ideologies of a business need to “cascade into individual rewards and incentives”.

6) Integrate the purpose into core business practices

The report notes that “core business practices” will need to evolve to reflect the new purpose. This includes new mindsets around innovation and ensuring the executive team can guide departments into new ways of working.

7) Build the capacity and capability of employees

The purpose is “likely to require a new, more holistic mindset from both leaders and employees”, the report notes. This would allow decision making to become decentralised, which in turn could create a more agile working culture.

8) Select and build external partnerships and advocacy

With a multitude of challenges emerging across value chains that span multiple countries, the report notes the need to work with external partners to “collaborate with on pre-competitive issues or find the expertise and delivery capability to realise its strategy”.

9) Integrate the purpose into metrics and external disclosure

With more stakeholders demanding disclosure on corporate performance, being able to integrate the business purpose into performance metrics and updates could be competitively viable for organisations, while also building trust and attracting new investment.

10) Integrate the purpose into corporate positioning and communications strategy

“Authenticity emerges when what the organisation intends aligns with what the organisation says and does”, the report states. Honesty and transparency against the performance of a strategy will be key to performing against this.

Commenting on the report, Rebecca Marmot, chief sustainability officer, Unilever, said: “I’m pleased to share Unilever’s experience in this report that reinforces the essential nature of the multi-stakeholder model and demonstrates the imperative to embed sustainability through the entire business and supply chain.”

CISL at edie’s Sustainability Leaders Forum

CISL’s Ben Kellard is among the plethora of expert speakers that will be speaking at edie’s Flagship Sustainability Leaders Forum. The chief executive of Anglian Water, Peter Simpson, and Minister for Business Energy and Clean Growth Kwasi Kwarteng are among the latest headline speakers that will feature at edie’s biggest event of the year – the Sustainability Leaders Forum – which takes place as a global, virtual event on 2-4 February 2021.


Matt Mace

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