Can business help save the planet?

October 11, 2018 | Fernanda Trevisan

We are in trouble. As two young people looking toward the future, this is the unavoidable conclusion we reached after listening to twenty representatives from business, NGOs, media and academia discuss sustainability and the role of business at the 11th Core Dinner Debate* held in London last week.

The debate co-hosted by Innate Motion and online giving platform Neighbourly.com was facilitated by Neil Gaught, author of ‘Core: How a Single Organizing Idea can Change Business for Good’. Senior representatives from businesses in attendance included: M&SSodexoThe Climate GroupGlobal Partnership for Sustainable DevelopmentJCDecauxSuntorySantanderEDF EnergyBritish AirwaysHSBCKering and the University of Plymouth. It kicked off with his reason for writing the book and the thinking behind Single Organizing Idea (SOI®). Highly motivated and clearly passionate Gaught is on a mission to scale SOI and get as many businesses as possible to understand it; with the end goal of changing the world through business.

“SOI makes purpose real” Gaught explained. “SOI is a management tool designed to operationalise purpose. Purpose on its own, without action is little more than a statement of intent.” When purpose is operationalised and impacts on every part of the business, when every part of the enterprise is single-mindedly organised and aligned with a compelling and sustainable idea that everyone can see the value of – that is when a business can claim it is a force for good.” The problem is there just isn’t enough of these businesses and perhaps more worryingly there aren’t enough businesses that even want to be.

One business leader observed that “there are lots of businesses that have a defined purpose but very few have managed to ‘hard-wire’ it into their businesses holistically.”

One business leader observed that “there are lots of businesses that have a defined purpose but very few have managed to ‘hard-wire’ it into their businesses holistically.”

Adding to that, the sustainability manager from one of the UK’s leading high street retailers explained, although she was enormously proud of what their business had achieved in their supply chains through the pursuit of a sustainability agenda, the same outcomes are not being realised across the rest of the business. “Our supply chains are organised very practically and on a day-to-day basis around delivering sustainable outcomes and driving new efficiencies, but we are alone in the business in doing that.” Representatives from the fashion sector echoed the same point. “Sustainable outcomes are being addressed in our supply chain all the time but I agree it’s not the purpose of the business so it stands alone and in a way is isolated from the rest of the business.” said one.

Communications was advocated by some of those around the table as a solution to join businesses up around a purpose, however, there are issues around going down this route. Quite often marketing and brand people are ahead of the game. Gaught cited BP’s ‘Beyond Petroleum’ as an example and others around lamented about the lost opportunity BP had squandered by being ‘talk’ rather than actions led. A leading bank’s sustainability expert added to this that the issue is the gap between marketing and sustainability experts, bringing the two together is one of the most challenging aspect of their work. Specifically, there is a lack of common language – sustainability experts tend to talk in ‘technical jargon’ and marketing people in theirs. This point of friction was readily accepted by all sat around the table.

Getting businesses to align around a purpose is difficult partly because nobody has a clear idea what purpose actually is. While purpose is open to all sorts of interpretation, the language of Single Organising Idea, gives absolute clarity to exactly what it is and what is intended to do. “It’s an idea, everyone and everything within the enterprise is organised around to deliver” Gaught said. Victoria Hurth, Associate Professor in Marketing and Sustainability from Plymouth University, whose recent focus has been on the role purpose and has written a paper on it, liked the clarity of SOI. “When we looked at purpose, the first thing we decided we needed to do was define exactly what purpose actually is. And indeed when you take purpose to the next level you do end up in the place where you describe SOI; it fits, SOI takes purpose and makes it into a management tool. It turns intentions into reality, delivering both socio and economic outcomes. Purpose has to be an idea you can deliver and SOI does that.”

“Purpose has to be an idea you can deliver and SOI does that.”

Nick Davies, Founder of Neighbourly, summed up the thread of this part of the debate with a conclusion. “The problem we face is that while businesses can’t sort their own houses their ability to influence and change consumer behaviour and attitudes – the absolute key to achieving the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) – is totally limited. Without a defined SOI at their core in the first instance that is driving real, sustainable outcomes that everyone can see, businesses stand little chance of activating and influencing communities to take action.”

The group around the table talked about the remarkable effect of David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II. This series, attracted the nation’s attention and made people seriously think about how they can improve their own footprints on the environment. It inspired collective action against single use plastics, plastic straws replaced with metal or paper equivalents, supermarket packing ripped off and dumped in the aisles, a dramatic rise in the purchase of reusable coffee cups. It happened overnight and had an effect almost globally. If one documentary can encourage activism, we need to look at how effective our message could be on a grander scale, engaging both global business and consumerism as a whole. A representative from The Climate Group reacted to this “although the documentary engaged people around plastic, the documentary’s main message was climate change, which is a complex issue which is not that engaging”. Plastic is easy to address through action; climate change, being less visual, is the core issue here.

But of course activism isn’t the sole answer and although branding and marketing campaigns can all have an impact, this is often fleeting or soon forgotten as the next trend catches on. Climate change has thus far failed to engage consumers and businesses alike. Benoit Beaufils, Founding Partner and Business Humaniser at Innate Motion, explained how he is working with companies to create more meaningful growth . “When we carry out research with consumers, we find there is growing interest in sustainability issues. There is a growing expectation that companies will act. Our job with companies is to help them create sustainable outcomes through their brands. Doing so will give consumers the chance to make better choices.”

“When we carry out research with consumers, we find there is growing interest in sustainability issues. There is a growing expectation that companies will act.”

Gaught summed up “We can tell businesses all day long that they need to change but until they have the courage to look beyond the short-term systems to which most are slaves, we will be in serious trouble.”

Our outtake from the evening is that while businesses will never be perfect, having a Single Organising Idea (SOI) that focuses their future on sustainable outcomes for all their stakeholders is a positive step in the right direction, but we need to get on with it.

Alice Hannam and Fernanda Trevisan, Business humanizers Innate Motion

If you’d like to learn more about Single Organising Idea (SOI or you want to know more, contact Muriel Soupart muriel@in8motion.com.

Neil Gaught’s book is available on Amazon: Core: How a Single Organizing Idea can Change Business for Good’

*Core Dinner Debates and events have taken place in London (twice), New York, Washington, Montreal, Toronto, Auckland, Sydney, Copenhagen, Oslo and Beirut. 


Posted By Alice Hannam

Alice had an unusual start to her career. Her first office job was in the UK Parliament in an office right under Big Ben. After two years working as a Parliamentary Researcher, she undertook a Modern Languages degree in Spanish and Japanese at the University of London, in her spare time. Upon completion of her degree, and following the 2015 election, Alice left politics and travelled Japan to improve her language skills. Travelling entirely by local trains, the logistical challenges involved revealed an interest in planning itineraries for others and took her to her next role working for luxury travel boutique, Ampersand. Alice left London in 2016 to work remotely and travel more of Asia. There, she set up as a freelance Events and Travel Coordinator and upon returning to the UK, continued to work remotely for international brands including Bacardi and Grey Goose, booking their corporate travel. This led her to her role with Innate Motion. Alice now lives in Lymington on the South Coast of England with her boyfriend, Will, who is a sailor and journalist. They spend weekends out on the water and walking in the New Forest, exploring all that the beautiful coastline has to offer.

Contact Alice

+44 7491 828 590