For some time, corporate sustainability has existed as a discipline for managing the negative impacts created by organisations. Less emissions, less water, less materials. But, the goalposts have shifted as stakeholder expectations have changed. Now, organisations are grappling to balance the ‘less bad’ side of the equation with ‘more good’ to carve out a meaningful contribution beyond making money.

Enter, purpose. Societal, individual, or environmental, businesses with purpose use their unique capabilities to deliver something that matters to individuals, society or the world. Each year, we look at over 180 organisations and how they are talking about and activating their purpose in our Fit for Purpose index - but this doesn’t mean we know all the answers. So, we recently sat down with 10 organisations including Maersk, Novo Nordisk, SAP, Pandora and Vestas in Copenhagen to find out what they thought about the relationship between sustainability and purpose. Here’s what we found.

1. Purpose is the "why" and sustainability is the "how"

The line between purpose and sustainability is often blurred and they are certainly not mutually exclusive. But, comparing the two is a bit like comparing apples and bananas. On one hand, they are both about long-term change and require cross-functional collaboration to be effective. On the other hand, sustainability is based on scientific principles and relatively easy to measure, whereas purpose is more emotive and therefore difficult to quantify.

Participants agreed that an organisation’s purpose describes why it exists while sustainability is how this comes to life, alongside what an organisation makes and sells.

2. Use purpose as the guiding light

Some theories suggest that purpose should endure the test of time and drive the direction of an organisationOthers offer a more pragmatic view suggesting that many factors, including mergers and acquisitions for example, will undoubtedly influence an organisation’s purpose over time. 

So, where does this leave business strategy? Is it born from a relentless and unwavering pursuit of your purpose? Or, does your business strategy ultimately define your purpose?

During the session, most participants agreed that leading organisations use purpose as the ‘guiding light’ from which everything else unfolds – including sustainability and strategy.     



3. Sustainability can help prevent purpose-wash

For some participants, quantitative measurement of purpose over-and-above the balance sheet is a waste of time. For others, and us, measurement of some form is imperative to build credibility and prevent purpose-wash. This can be done by aligning your purpose with robust sustainability KPIs and reporting performance on an ongoing basis.

4. Infuse purpose into your organisational culture

Our discussion highlighted the importance of the nexus between purpose and culture. For a purpose to be more than just words, it needs to be a living part of the daily employee experience. It should connect emotionally to why the organisation exists, and should unify employees around a common goal. 

5. The questions keep coming

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