Profiting from purpose: how businesses are addressing society’s biggest challenges

What role does business, should business – and most importantly – can business play in our lives? In our communities? In shaping the future of our world? 

PURPOSE vs. PROFIT

Since the mid-20th century, we have ascribed to the notion that business exists to maximize shareholder value – with “value” tracked quarterly, measured in profits, year over year revenue growth, and dividend payouts.

Under this paradigm, we understood profit and purpose to be entirely disconnected – sometimes even misaligned.

Intentional pursuit of societal wellbeing (“purpose creation”) was relegated to the role of governments, to NGOs, and to individual philanthropists: those who had reaped the rewards of the market and thus were afforded the opportunity to reallocate resources to address market failures and externalities accordingly. Only once “economic value” had been created could it be repurposed for the pursuit of purpose itself.

Yet, as our world increasingly finds itself confronted by seemingly insurmountable challenges (a warming and polluted planet, scarcer resources, growing social dislocation and rising inequality), these traditional impact and profit-seeking institutions have not adequately, and cannot adequately address these growing issues

The planet’s average surface temperature has risen since the 19th century (1.9 degrees Fahrenheit to be precise), and most of the warming has occurred in the past 35 years from rapid global industrialization and deforestation. Pollution is leading to acidification changing the chemistry of the oceans, diminishing under-water biodiversity and fish stocks. On land, global warming is impacting rainfall patterns, which – combined with current agriculture practices – contributes to declining crop productivity and global food security. 

Given these trends, we look to alternative strategies, and – most notably – new definitions of “value-creation” to better confront deep cutting problems and existential threats.


PEOPLE + PROFIT

New business models are aligning purpose and profit, adopting a “lockstep model” in which value creation is defined as benefitting stakeholders beyond shareholders: employees, customers, and those participating in every aspect of a company’s supply chain.

These companies no longer approach big, societal challenges as an afterthought: to be addressed once the real market strategies are successfully pursued. Rather, societal challenges constitute markets in and of themselves – the pursuit of profit is, by definition, the pursuit of purpose and vice versa.

Feeding our planet, powering our planet, getting people and things from A to B and around our planet –  these all constitute BIG, BIG markets. Clean and renewable sources of energy, innovations in agriculture and food production, supply chain optimizations, urban mobility and last mile solutions – these all constitute compelling opportunities within these markets. In fact, the very companies applying a sustainability lens to their business models and products constitute major threats to industry incumbents and current leaders of these markets.


PURPOSE = PROFIT (?)

We find inspiration in how these innovations more efficiently and equitably utilize our resources (meat made from plants or grown in a lab, robots for more efficient farming, AI-powered HVAC energy efficiency optimization, plastics and packaging alternatives, carbon capture and solar powered-everything).

And while the idea behind this triple bottom (3BL) line approach is compelling indeed, we are curious about all the hype.

How well are these 3BL models able to achieve profit and purpose? How are consumers and investors responding? How are policies creating and or constraining these purpose driving markets? How significant is cultural context (values, traditions) in shaping the success of these markets…  across Europe… across Asia?

Our project with 3BL, therefore, seeks to examine the ways in which this new paradigm of business operates.

Beyond the excitement of new technologies and business models, the triple bottom line approach (people, profit and planet) just makes plain sense: business provides us – and generations to come – with tools (energy sources, transportation) and resources (food, water) to lead happy and healthy lives.

We’ll examine the role of funding (asset owners and managers, private equity and venture capital firms targeting ESG or impact outcomes),  large corporations (sustainability initiatives, and new innovations to complement or enhance existing operations), the role of NGOs, governments, and most notably startups (and scaleups).

Follow our journey as we start in Singapore, and move to Europe – Paris, London, Amsterdam and Berlin to meet with funders and founders, executives and policymakers who all are part of the sustainability ecosystems in their respective markets.

Sources:

https://climate.nasa.gov

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