Over the past week, I’ve had many robust conversations with brand leaders about the interplay between purpose and sustainability at Climate Week events. With the spotlight increasingly on our planet’s most pressing issues—rising temperatures, dwindling resources and the growing threat of climate change—the demand for action from the business sector alongside governments reverberates across the global stage. And, excitingly, the majority of brand leaders I’ve met over the past few days are seeking ways to integrate doing good into all aspects of their work. They recognize purpose and sustainability (the broader definition of which includes environmental and social initiatives across all 17 SDGs) should no longer be viewed as costs to the business, but rather as investments into brand development, growth and value creation.
For the most successful purpose-driven brands, sustainability isn’t a fleeting aspiration or a temporary campaign during Climate Week—a sustainability mindset is ingrained in the foundation upon which they build their identity. They appreciate that sustainability isn’t a distant goal; it’s an immediate imperative. An increasingly urgent call that insists on commitment and accountability, and it’s in this crucible that purpose emerges as a vehicle to close the say-do gap and integrate sustainability into daily activities and operations.
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Emotional bonds: purpose and the heart of sustainability
During the pandemic, the concept of brand purpose gained momentum as companies sought to demonstrate genuine care for their employees, suppliers and local communities…. And many brand leaders were compelled to develop the “why” behind their business. Brands that were genuinely purpose driven didn’t stop at the surface level of their commitments; instead, they delved deeper into creating meaningful emotional connections with their audiences – often through sustainability programs that extended into social impact. They recognized purpose as a strategic tool that requires intentionality and commitment to consistency.
Today, purpose-driven brands embrace higher-order emotional benefits and a deep-seated desire to add value, considering their relationships across the wider system in which they operate, balancing the needs of customers, employees and material stakeholders with those of investors. The most effective purpose-driven brands tap into our inherent human desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves. They offer narratives that resonate with people’s aspirations, ethics and worldviews.
Importantly, purpose is not about taking a stand, cause marketing, philanthropy or going green, although each of these actions represents a way to activate purpose. Rather, it is a 360° proposition that inspires and guides all aspects of the brand experience, organizational culture and business operations. When used as a filter for decision-making, purpose helps brands maneuver social and political landmines with clarity and conviction, ultimately removing the need to backtrack.
The distinct and intertwined nature of purpose and sustainability
Amidst the increasing pressure to grow financial and social value, many brands continue to conflate purpose with sustainability. Although these two concepts are intricately intertwined and mutually influential, they remain distinct. Sustainability revolves around responsible resource management and the preservation of ecological, social and economic systems for present and future generations. It encompasses practices that minimize negative impacts on the environment, support social well-being and ensure long-term economic viability.
Sustainable practices focus on reducing carbon emissions, conserving resources, adopting renewable energy sources and promoting social equity. They strive to strike a balance between meeting current needs and preserving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. By necessity, sustainability requires a systemic approach, addressing environmental, social and economic dimensions simultaneously.
Over the long-term, sustainability enables purpose through providing a framework for brands to live their intentions responsibly—taking the material aspects of environment, human rights and social well-being into account. Integrating sustainable practices into day-to-day operations is about more than doing good. It’s about safeguarding the resources a business needs to fulfill its purpose over the long term, ensuring resilience and continuity.
And herein lies the powerful link—the integration of purpose into sustainable practices amplifies a brand’s positive impact. Purpose-driven brands embody their reason for being in their marketing, advertising and other communications, and they also actively challenge harmful narratives, invest in social initiatives, champion diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging and seek to create systemic change.
Examples of brands effectively linking purpose and sustainability
Through engaging in purpose-led initiatives that promote sustainability and belonging, brands can have the influence to foster trust across social divides, inspire collective action around change and ultimately cultivate loyalty that grows profits. When effectively activated, purpose helps to cut through the noise and foster more meaningful connections based on shared humanity and universal values—rather than politically motivated rhetoric.
When they embrace the nuanced interplay between purpose and sustainability, brands simultaneously can better navigate today’s complex business and societal challenges and grow profit. Purpose provides the inspiration and direction, and sustainability offers the framework and accountability to ensure purposeful actions are taken responsibly, sustainably and ethically.
Consider some expected, and not-so-expected, examples:
1. Fostering belonging and cultural – Airbnb is driven by a purpose of fostering belonging and cultural understanding. By offering unique experiences and connecting travelers with local hosts, Airbnb creates opportunities for meaningful cultural exchanges.
Moreover, Airbnb ensures diverse representation in its marketing campaigns, implementing inclusive policies, and supporting marginalized communities. This 360-degree approach to purpose surpasses anti-wokeism and strengthens social connections. By embracing its purpose and continually pushing the boundaries, Airbnb navigates biases with confidence, inspiring others to follow suit.
- Open Homes: Airbnb’s Open Homes program provides free and temporary housing to people in times of crisis, such as natural disasters or refugees seeking shelter. This initiative aligns with their purpose of fostering belonging and cultural understanding by creating opportunities for people to support and connect with those in need.
- Community Tourism Experiences: Airbnb launched the “Community Tourism Program,” which allows locals in underrepresented communities to offer unique and authentic experiences to travelers. This initiative helps empower marginalized communities by giving them a platform to showcase their culture and traditions.
2. Empowering self-esteem and challenging beauty norms – Similarly, Dove’s purpose goes beyond products and is a commitment to positive impact. Rooted in self-esteem and body positivity, the brand actively challenges harmful beauty standards and embraces diversity in its advertising.
Accepting it may face missteps (remember those multi-shaped bottles?) Dove’s commitment to learning demonstrates its commitment to change. Dove’s focus on self-esteem and diversity benefits its bottom line and also challenges norms as it strives to create a more inclusive and accepting beauty culture. By embodying its purpose and continually raising the bar for truly living it, Dove navigates biases with confidence, inspiring others to do the same.
- Dove Self-Esteem Project: Dove’s Self-Esteem Project is an ongoing global initiative aimed at improving body confidence and self-esteem in young people. The program provides educational resources and workshops to promote positive body image and challenge beauty norms.
- Real Beauty Pledge: Dove made a commitment to feature real, diverse women in its advertising campaigns, without retouching their appearances. By promoting authentic beauty, Dove challenges conventional beauty standards and promotes inclusivity.
3. Empowering sustainable business solutions – With its purpose of being a catalyst that makes the world work better, IBM intentionally builds a culture that flows from its people. The brand is centered on shared beliefs about the company’s place in the world and how it acts to achieve that.
IBM issued its first environmental policy over 50 years ago, and 2023 was the 33rd consecutive time it publicly reported its environmental performance. Through responsible business practices, thought leadership and innovative technology -and empowering clients to navigate social, environmental and political complexities—the brand amplifies its positive impact, driving positive change on a global scale.
- Sustainability as an enabler of purpose: A sustainability mindset drives IBM’s culture and business strategy, enabling the brand to live its purpose across all activities. IBM works with government and commercial entities in areas ranging from agriculture to transportation around the world, developing solutions that incorporate sustainability. The brand also supports environmentally at-risk communities across the world through the IBM Sustainability Accelerator.
- Smarter Cities Challenge: IBM’s Smarter Cities Challenge is a pro bono consulting program that helps cities around the world tackle various urban challenges using data and technology. Through this initiative, IBM empowers communities to find sustainable solutions to their most pressing issues.
4. Pioneering technology for a sustainable future – For 175 years, Siemens has been motivated by the purpose its founder, Werner von Siemens, has for the company: to provide technologies that improve quality of life and create lasting value for society. Championing gender equality, investing in education programs and promoting technological innovation for societal benefit, Siemens demonstrates that purpose-driven brands can have a far-reaching, sustainable positive impact.
With purpose deeply ingrained in its DNA – guiding strategic decisions and inspiring the development of solutions that address pressing global challenges—ike IBM, Siemens reminds us that being purposeful is not solely a B2C pursuit.
- Innovation for Social Benefit: Siemens’ commitment to pioneering technology for a sustainable future has resulted in cutting-edge solutions that address societal challenges. From renewable energy solutions to smart city technologies, Siemens’ innovations positively impact communities by providing cleaner and more efficient solutions for urban living.
- DEGREE (Decarbonization, Ethics, Governance, Resource Efficiency, Equity, and Employability): Embracing a 360-degree approach for stakeholders—customers, suppliers, investors, employees, societies the business serves and our planet, Siemen’s DEGREE framework, maximizes efficiency, minimizes the release of non-natural substances into the environment and manages resources in a circular loop.
5. Sustainability as a Guiding Compass – Global flooring manufacturer Interface has deeply integrated its purpose into every aspect of its operations, from product development to brand identity and benchmarked through its carbon footprint, circular economy practices and inclusive employment opportunities within its supply chain.
Aligning actions and values, Interface demonstrates sustainable practices can both enhance brand value and foster a positive impact on the environment and society—inspiring trust that resonates across political divides.
- Embodied Beauty™: Setting a new standard for the industry, Interface’s Embodied Beauty Collection is carbon negative from cradle-to-gate (from resource extraction to the factory gate). Believing that great design and sustainability are one and the same, the line offers designers the opportunity to reduce the carbon footprint of the spaces they create.
- Empowering Local Communities through Net-Works: Interface’s former Net-Works program is a wonderful example of social entrepreneurship. Partnering with nylon supplier Aquafil and the Zoological Society of London, Interface purchased discarded fishing nets from some of the poorest communities globally, recycling them into new yarn for carpet tiles – and leading to fewer ghost nets, less virgin materials and a new source of income for marginalized communities.
Walking the purpose-driven path: A call to brands during Climate Week 2023
The world needs brands that not only talk the talk but walk the walk—a purposeful approach to business that goes beyond surface-level activities and integrates purpose and sustainability into the very DNA of the brand’s culture. As brand leaders continue to grapple with the best ways to activate and integrate purpose into the very essence of their organizations, Climate Week 2023 stands as an urgent call to action. Over the past week, I heard people speaking about the need for change at a greater scale and faster pace. About actions rather than aspirations and commitments.
There is no doubt that purpose and sustainability are no longer ideals reserved for glossy reports and fleeting campaigns. They are the driving forces that must underpin every decision, every initiative and every interaction within and beyond the corporate world. The urgency of our global challenges demands nothing less. Brands that understand this profound truth are doing more than responding to the times; they are seeking to use their influence to shape them. They are proving that purpose and a sustainability mindset are investments, not costs; strategies, not slogans; and a way of operating, not afterthoughts.
As we depart from Climate Week 2023, let’s carry with us the conviction that purpose-driven brands are more than a force for good. That purpose-driven brands are a catalyst for lasting change. They show us that there is no gap between saying and doing. Together, we can navigate the path toward a sustainable, equitable and prosperous future for all.
Here are 7 guidelines for brand leaders to navigate the interplay between purpose and sustainability:
- Distinguish purpose from sustainability: While purpose and sustainability are closely related, they are distinct concepts. Sustainability is about responsible resource management, while purpose is the deeper reason your business exists that embraces a wider human truth.
- Tether purpose to your business: To make it both meaningful and effective, embed your purpose into the core idea for your brand, ensuring it’s tether it to your value proposition and your business strategy.
- Emotional connection matters: Genuine care for employees, customers, and communities creates deeper emotional connections. Purpose-driven brands foster more meaningful emotional bonds, often through sustainability efforts.
- Assimilate Sustainable Practices: Sustainability is about more than doing good; it’s about safeguarding the resources your business needs for the long term. Integrate sustainable practices into your daily operations and cultivate a sustainability mindset within your culture.
- Efficaciously promoting sustainability can inspire trust and loyalty: Purpose-driven initiatives that promote sustainability can foster trust and inspire collective action. Authenticity and meaningful connections lead to customer loyalty and growth.
- 360° filters: Consider purpose and sustainability as filters that unite all aspects of your business, from operations to marketing to HR to finance. When integrated into your DNA, they guide every decision employees make and are investments into brand development, growth and value creation.
- Catalyze change through the interplay of purpose and sustainability: Position your brand as a catalyst for change by integrating sustainability goals upfront with your purpose. Purpose-driven brands have the power to create meaningful and lasting change—through influencing the way people think and behave.