A New Resolution of Purpose

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Ashling O’Connor

As someone born in the Year of the Ox, the second animal in the Chinese zodiac which enters its new house on February 12, I am looking forward to a positive and productive year. 2021 has to be better than 2020, after all.

We’ve had a lot of time to reflect these past few months in and out of lockdown. As we reimagine a post-Covid world, we are challenging old norms and considering big changes around the way we work and play.

Since last March, I have bought an electric bike that will replace most journeys in London previously taken by car, bus or train. I buy more locally sourced food including a milk delivery and eat less meat. I am a new recruit to the Peleton revolution and, more surprisingly, it appears I may also be a twitcher.

In a quest to make our increasingly repetitive weekend walk more interesting, my family and I took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch, a national campaign run by the UK’s leading bird protection charity.

Back home, we tried to input the data from our stroll along the Thames (two nesting herons, two robins, three crows, a wood pigeon and a green woodpecker). But the RSPB’s website kept crashing and it took several tedious attempts to complete the survey. Millions of other people clearly had the same idea.

I wasn’t one for birdwatching pre-pandemic, but a lot of habits are changing and many of us are appreciating the world around us and thinking about how we can do better by our planet. It’s do or die, literally.

Sustainability has long been on the corporate agenda, of course, but it felt like a tipping point for real change recently when the man in charge of the world’s largest asset management group proclaimed that “climate transition presents a historic investment opportunity”. Larry Fink, co-founder of Black Rock, called on all companies to be net carbon neutral by 2050 or face the withdrawal of his sizeable capital support.

He may be driven by selfish reasons – as Gillian Tett observed in the FT, the penny dropped with him when his annual fishing trip to the Alaskan lakes was ruined by tundra wildfires – but better late than never. And with $8tn at his disposal, and a new-found purpose to leave a better world for his seven grandchildren, he has the kind of leverage few others do.

At SRI, as we mark our 20-year anniversary, we can reflect that we have long worked with mission-driven organisations. The Eden Project, Guardian Media Group, Patagonia, the International Olympic Committee, to name a few, put purpose over profit and take an active lead in sustainability issues.

For all companies, though, this matters. There are two big reasons why they should care: their customers do and so do their employees.

Consumers are making more sustainable purchasing decisions and are asking questions around what brands are doing to minimise their environmental impact. Those that do not have credible answers, risk losing their custom. There is a fundamental business reason why Unilever has made sustainability a core part of its strategy and has doubled down on its ‘brands with purpose’.

An increasingly socially aware and activist generation of workers too will not join corporate ranks without seeing a defined sustainability strategy and mission statement. This will stunt companies’ ability to attract the best young talent – if they don’t see their values reflected in the way a company does business, why would they join? There are plenty of emerging companies that have their story straight, and the action to prove it. Alternatively, the most entrepreneurial among them will just found their own.

A sense of belonging is fostered by a shared purpose between shareholders, the Board, executive management and employees and all the way along the supply chain. Its importance cannot be underestimated.

Companies using this time to reflect on their sense of mission, and whether it matches the expectations of a post-Covid world, will emerge in a stronger position to win the race for talent. So, as we prepare to say good riddance to the Year of the Rat, let’s focus instead on The Year of the Purpose.