For decades, business leaders treated purpose as an afterthought, if they thought about it at all —a donation or volunteer program to be supported after it had achieved its business goals. But times are changing.
According to a survey conducted by Green Print, 64% of consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable products. What’s more, according to a recent SK group survey, 79% of job seekers want to work for a company that places a priority on sustainability and environmentally friendly business practices.
Building a business with purpose used to be a smart PR move. Now it’s becoming central to corporate mission and strategy, and it’s evolved into a valuable recruitment tool. So where do you start? And how do you create purpose authentically, and avoid greenwashing?
3 ways to build an authentic business with purpose
1. Bake purpose into your business model
What distinguishes companies with a firm commitment is that they integrate purpose into their business models from Day 1. For example, my company is a consulting firm. Our business model essentially consists of aggregating very smart brains and putting them to work on client problems. We fulfill our purpose by ensuring every client engagement aligns with our mission statement: Igniting Opportunity. Advancing Global Good. If a client project does not align with that mission statement, we do not take on the project.
Other companies take different approaches. A cleaning company that hires low-skilled workers might express its purpose through improving equity by offering living wages and good benefits to employees. A food and beverage company might focus on sourcing from sustainable and/or regenerative farms. Purpose-driven founders must start thinking early about how their business model can be leveraged for positive change in the world, whether that is through the goods and services you offer, the way you conduct your business, or how you treat your workers.
2. Be humble, start small and continually improve.
There is a hilarious scene from “Silicon Valley”—the HBO satire of the tech industry—where a group of tech founders are pitching to venture capitalists at a competition. During their pitch every founder proclaims, “we are going to change the world.” Eyes roll. As any successful founder quickly learns, being humble isn’t a bug in the startup journey; it is a critical feature. So, too, with purpose—to do it properly requires humility.
Start small, set achievable goals and then over-deliver on them. This will build credibility with your employees, investors, customers and other stakeholders. At my company, we are establishing an internal team of employees from across the company who will monitor our performance on five key categories —governance, workers, customers, community and the environment—and develop recommendations on the ways the company can improve our performance, and strengthen our impact, over time.
3. Foster your purpose through culture.
As a startup grows beyond its core initial team, the question of culture becomes critically important. Company culture is really the only way to ensure consistent, aligned performance and purpose across an organization. A coherent and well-defined company culture lets you hire people who will champion your mission, and it provides the clarity the team needs to navigate key decisions—large and small—about the company’s future. Building culture is incredibly hard to do, and it requires intentionality to ensure that the company purpose does not get lost.
We began the deliberate effort of culture-building a bit late—after we had already started up the hockey stick of rapid growth—which has made the process even more challenging. Founders need to articulate company values aligned with their purpose early and often. They need to model the behaviors they want to see to bring that purpose to life. And they need to listen to their staff and their stakeholders to ensure that company culture—that vital north star and reinforcing engine for purpose—is never rigid or stagnant.