Creative change for good

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

Probably a 100-decibel alarm clock on these frosty sunrises.

But seriously what is that internal driver that makes you want to get up, get dressed, walk to work, click on your laptop and sip your first latte of the day?

Purpose is a core question we ask of businesses and organisations when we take them through our branding strategy sessions. We are looking for values that organisations share and hold dear – things that they believe are essential to their success and would, if necessary, fight hard to protect. Once that key purpose is articulated, we can reveal an authentic, honest and real brand story that staff will unite around and customers will connect with.

Funny thing is, we rarely find CEOs saying that their core purpose in life is to make more money. Certainly there is a duty of governance for all Boards and managers to be profitable, and provide a return to staff, shareholders, and (for government agencies), taxpayers.

This is how mortgages are paid, how food ends up on tables, how businesses grow, and economies flourish.

But for most of our clients, cash is an enabler – it’s how we make that cash that reveals who we are.

An organisation’s purpose is an aspirational destination – to provide futures for their people, improve society, maximise the innovative talents of staff, do things that make the world a better place.

At this moment in our history, most of the world’s purpose has seemingly been reduced to survival. For the unemployed and underemployed their purpose is to make ends meet. If you’re a business owner, you lay awake at night worrying how to keep your staff employed beyond the euphemistic post-Jobkeeper “cliff”.

But despite spot fire outbreaks and ongoing travel restrictions, it’s now clear that some semblance of business-as-usual might just be possible on the other side of this pandemic – albeit a far more disrupted and ever-changing reality. Now is the time to prepare for the post COVID-19 economy by reflecting on lessons learned – about working together, looking after the vulnerable, watching out for our families and neighbours, calling out selfish behaviour like toilet paper stockpiling and breaking border rules.

So could “doing good” become a new economic as well as social purpose? Do we have an opportunity at this crossroad, to redefine what business is and what we want the world to be like after this time of introspection and reassessment?

Purpose and profitability

In January this year Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest “shadow bank” with $7.4 trillion under assets management, announced that it would no longer be investing in companies that were not making “sufficient progress” on sustainability.

When the bulls and bears of Wall Street start talking about the social outcomes of money, then we should all sit up and listen.

“A company cannot achieve long-term profits without embracing purpose and considering the needs of a broad range of stakeholders. Ultimately, purpose is the engine of long-term profitability,” he said in a letter to CEOs.

“Over the 40 years of my career in finance, I have witnessed a number of financial crises and challenges – the inflation spikes of the 1970s and early 1980s, the Asian currency crisis in 1997, the dot-com bubble, and the global financial crisis. Climate change is different. Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects.”

In May, a group of unusual bedfellows – leaders from the Business Council, the Property Council, the Australian Energy Council, the Australian Industry Group, the ACTU, the Australian Council of Social Service, the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Australian Conservation Foundation – wrote a letter to the PM.

“Australia faces a public health emergency with immediate economic impacts as well as longer-lasting global economic pain. Beyond the pandemic, Australian prosperity also depends on dealing with other long-term challenges, including the transition to net-zero emissions,” the letter says.

“The letter called for cuts to emissions, an accelerated transition to clean energy across all regions and economic sectors and a focus on fixing inefficient homes and buildings.”
Refreshingly this agenda is not being driven by political parties but the actual people making the economy – and society – happen every day.

People Profit Planet

Now it would be easy for the climate cynics and deniers to dismiss this as timely populist social greenwashing claptrap.

But that undermines a long groundswell of social responsibility in business that goes back to the mid-1990s Triple Bottom Line (People, Profit, Planet). It’s now a well-established accounting framework that has added value to countless businesses.

It also devalues the honest efforts of thousands of organisations who give back through local sponsorships, charitable donations, internships and staff-giving plans.
Doing good is alive and well and is no longer some radical construct from the Left. Just ask consumers.

Last September researcher Roy Morgan revealed that over three-quarters of Australians were concerned about global warming – up 12% since February 2014 and the highest level of concern for well over a decade since April 2006 (82%) before the Global Financial Crisis.

Over three-quarters of Australians say of global warming that ‘If we don’t act now it will be too late’ (50%) or ‘It is already too late’ (28%) to deal with the issue. The concern came particularly from women (55%) and under 34-year-olds.

Tellingly, there have been huge improvements in our environment since March – reduced air travel and car use has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 5 per cent, air and water quality has improved and wildlife has reasserted itself – notice all the birds?

The big question is, will the real and present threat of an overheated world in 2030, slip down the urgency ladder as economic priorities take over post-COVID-19?

Given that our concerns about climate stalled after the GFC, will we allow short-term thinking to see not just our environment but our children’s futures destroyed in another decade. If our current emission rate continues, by 2030 – when drought is unavoidable, water security at risk and agriculture marginalised – a pandemic could be the least of our worries.

What can we do?

So if “doing good” is a positive for our shareholders and customers, as well as the planet, what can we as businesses do that is both purposeful and profitable.

Eminent economist Ross Garnaut said in his recent book Superpower that “the fog of Australian politics on climate change has obscured a fateful reality: Australia has the potential to be an economic superpower of the future post-carbon world. We have unparalleled renewable energy resources. We also have the necessary scientific skills. Australia could be the natural home for an increasing proportion of global industry.”

He says embracing low-carbon opportunities could lead to a clean electricity system more than three times the existing capacity that powers a transformed economy, including electric transport and new and expanded industries in minerals smelting.

“I have no doubt that intermittent renewables could meet 100% of Australia’s electricity requirements by the 2030s, with high degrees of security and reliability, and at wholesale prices much lower than experienced in Australia over the past half dozen years,” Garnaut writes.

I suspect many of us are encouraged by this vision, but feel the big picture is beyond our influence.

Everyone-everywhere

I was fortunate to hear Christiana Figueres, the former UN Executive Secretary for Climate Change and architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement, speak at WOMAdelaide several days before the COVID-19 shut down in March.

Her most telling statement is that we “can no longer afford the indulgence of feeling powerless” or assume that climate change is the responsibility of governments.

This is an “everyone-everywhere” mission, she said.

Our business has had an ethical purpose since its beginning, deliberately choosing clients that made a contribution to the prosperity of regional Australia and supporting the marginalised in society such as people with disabilities, family carers and the homeless. But our commitment to sustainability has grown over the last five years, driven by a groundswell of concern from our staff.

In 2018 we initiated a comprehensive recycling program as well as banning disposable coffee cups, which has cut waste by 50%. We’re now planning to install solar power and start the changeover to electric cars. We are also undertaking a 12-month plan to achieve Carbon Neutral Accreditation by measuring, reducing and offsetting emissions and we have applied to become a BCorp, one of nearly 3000 ethical organisations worldwide. We will be initiating a new service to help clients report on their ethical purpose this year. And we will be focussing on how we can use the creativity that is the DNA of our business, to inspire and drive change.

We’re of course not alone. Most of our clients are already on this ethical and sustainable journey too. They are substituting green power for coal power, investing in social housing, finding employment for people with a disability, creating indigenous opportunities, building six-star houses and property developments, reducing the use of bottled water in society, inventing recyclable coffee cups and packaging.

South Australia leads the nation in terms of renewable energy commercialisation. With 7.14% of the nation’s population, we capture 56% of the grid-connected wind power, 30% of solar power and 90% of its geothermal developments.

We are not like other states. We came here seeking political and social freedoms in the nineteenth century. We developed an extraordinary reputation for innovation and invention in the twentieth century.

As businesses and organisations we have a responsibility to think locally, lead our state out of COVID-19 and create a more purposeful economy in this century.

Let’s lift our gaze and talk about creative change for good…together.

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