The business of sustainability: Moving from visible to valued

Barry Walker

  • Senior strategist, Wunderman Thompson Perth
Barry began his career in Perth, Western Australia as a brand strategist in 2011, before moving to New York as part of the WPP Fellowship programme where he took up the position of Planning Director at J. Walter Thompson. Now back home in Perth, Barry works as a senior strategist for Wunderman Thompson across energy, aged care, sustainable agriculture, and education industries.

What are organisations for?

It’s a question posed by John Grant, co-founder of London creative agency, St Lukes, in his recent book, Better. And it’s one I recently put to a class of MBA students here in Perth, Western Australia.

I’ll leave you to ponder your own response, but here is theirs in a nutshell – to maximise profits.

So, as our planet wheezes itself to death and the gaps of inequality within our social and economic systems become gaping chasms, profit remains, above all else, atop the pile.

I see their point. Business is an inherently competitive endeavour, so to compete and achieve growth, one must indeed make a profit.

What followed was a robust discussion about the good and bad of capitalism, fiduciary duty and public good. The latter largely perceived as an ‘externality’.

It’s at this point I hear the words of Private James Frazer, fictional Home Guard platoon member and undertaker, in the BBC television sitcom, Dad's Army, ringing in my ears and saying: “We’re all doomed!”. But are we?

Is serving the public good (feel free to read social, economic, and environmental sustainability) destined to remain a mere ‘externality’ for businesses? Thankfully, and increasingly, not.

The boardroom conversations I have today are hardly recognisable to those of only a few years ago. Regardless of industry, scale or indeed the age or legacy of a business, a new kind of ask is emerging. Companies are seeking help to step outside of the systems they inhabit. It might sound a little strange, but really, they want to ‘see’ themselves from a distance, to understand their role within their system and how best they can positively serve it.

Senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-founder of the Presencing Institute, Otto Scharmer, would call this shift in thinking a move from ego-system to eco-system.

I’d agree, working through a process guided by a systems thinking methodology does feel like a metamorphosis. It’s one where the strategic remit becomes less intent on helping businesses be visible and more intent on helping them be valued. Invariably it demands that businesses leave their egos at the door.

Easy for some, impossible for some others.

Leave your ego at the door

But more and more of the companies I work with today get that thriving in business does not and cannot begin with profit making. There’s an emerging sense that survival of the system and the survival of all the adjoining, interlinked systems, in other words the social, economic and environmental world around us, must first be cared for.

For those paying attention, this is in fact the answer to Grant’s question. To care.

These companies know that if they can set themselves towards that very goal, then real, long term competitive advantage and yes, profit, await. And who would argue that these companies should be the ones to profit?

“Care comes before any purpose or mission.”

Good companies, geared to leave the world a better place than they found it? Surely, these will be the ones to receive an unfair share of the future. Survival of the fittest be damned. Where’s my wallet?

But what does it take to become one of these companies, where value trumps visibility and profit comes to organisations as more of a happy side effect? Everybody and everything.

It takes the willingness and the ability to place every single facet of the business under scrutiny. Regardless of commercial activity, everything from supply chain to hiring practices, production, services, packaging, renumeration policies, employees, and customers.

Do they stand in service of the system they are collectively a part of or as detractors from it? In what way do they add or create value to that whole?’

Without this willingness to expose the business (like a sock puppet, pulled inside-out) and to make the impactful decisions that positive social, economic and environmental sustainability so badly need today, the game is lost before it has even begun.

But if care does indeed come before any purpose or mission, companies would do well to first recognise the system role they can fulfil, then consistently re-interrogate themselves as they doggedly pursue that end.  

We are seeing the importance of doing so increasing with a growing number of Australian consumers actively looking for companies doing the right thing through our analysis.

Our latest Future Shopper 2021 study of more than 28,000 shoppers highlighted its growing importance locally and across the globe. Six in 10 Australians said a company’s ethics and morals plays an important part of their purchasing decision, with one-in-two Australian shoppers saying they actively look for brands that are environmentally responsible.

Clearly showing those who don’t take sustainability seriously run a very real risk of being left behind. Perhaps Private James Frazer can be proved wrong after all? And maybe, just maybe there’s a few bob in it too. 

Tags: sustainability, corporate social responsibility, brand purpose

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