…Or Are We? Purpose, People & Profits = #PageAnnual Day Two in London

September 13, 2016, Eliot Mizrachi

"If a company can't explain its purpose, then what's the purpose of that company?" – Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever

If you missed it, check out our Day One recap, "We're All Screwed."

Kicking off a day that swept from businesses serving a broader societal purpose to the intractable inability of capitalism to serve the interests of labor, Unilever CEO Paul Polman offered hope for the future of enterprise around the world.

Who says a behemoth CPG company can't have purpose at its core? For Polman, virtually every product has potential social value. Soap isn't only about clean bodies, but helping children have the hygiene that lets them live past five. Even toilet cleansers – their purpose is not solely use in the home but how they can provide access to sanitary lavatory facilities to parts of the world that struggle to contain the spread of disease. See your products through the lens of the good they can do in the world.

"The cost of humanitarian action is far less than the cost of inaction," said Polman. And, as it happens, he says that companies that have a strong and abiding social purpose grow twice as fast as those without one. The making of the business case for pursuing purpose begins with the assumption that the societal value that your company delivers is not just related to its purpose, but is its purpose. And it doesn't hurt to have a CEO so committed to the long-term that they decide to do away with quarterly earnings reports altogether.

Page & Purpose

Maril MacDonald of Gagen MacDonald introduced the next phase of Page's work on corporate character, which will focus on corporate purpose. In a survey of Page and Page Up members conducted in late 2015, 85% reported thinking that their enterprises have a responsibility to solve societal problems, and 72% believe that viewpoint has evolved over the last five years.

"The reality today is that purpose is not, and cannot, be an afterthought," said MacDonald. "Quite the opposite, actually. Corporate purpose is in many ways one of the first things that leadership should be contemplating."

Page will be working with partner organizations around the world to conduct a global survey on corporate purpose to better understand the varied perceptions, practices and experiences among companies operating in different cultural and business contexts. That effort began here in London, with table discussions among members designed to collect member insights that will inform the development of that survey.

The Human Element

One reason for the newfound focus on purpose may be that the "human element" matters when seeking to create change. "There's a reason the U.S. got to the moon before the Russians," Polman said. "The U.S. promised to also bring them home safely. The human motivation matters."

Pulling no punches, Philip Jennings of UNI Global Union made an impassioned case for the consequences of a growing disparity in income, and the public disaffectedness that comes with stagnant wages and employment. "Western capitalism has failed us," declared Jennings, "when 62 people have assets that equal those of the rest of the world." This feeds the popular sentiment that the system isn't set up to work for their interests, and contributes to the pollution of the discourse around these issues. "This is really what needs to be fixed," he added.

Informed Consent

John Morrison of the Institute for Human Rights and Business agreed, pointing out that "tacit consent" does not amount to actual consent. "How many of you read the fine print [in a service's Terms & Conditions] before clicking 'agree'?" he asked. "That's not informed consent. Brexit was built on this type of tacit consent." More on his remarks and point-of-view on his blog here.

Building on the point, Matt Peacock of Vodafone described what he termed the company's "aggressive transparency" as a means for confronting truly challenging reputational issues. Earning and maintaining the public's trust led the company to unprecedented (to say the least) levels of transparency. Vodafone issued highly detailed reports to combat accusations of tax dodging and explaining how the company works with law enforcement when it comes to sharing user data. "The risks were extremely high, but we had to do it," he concluded. "It was the right thing to do, and given the circumstances, it was the only thing to do."

Both Vodafone and Unilever are participants in The Blueprint for Business, which helps enterprises serve as a force for good. Between their unparalleled commitment to purpose and unabashed transparency, they are leading examples of what is possible.

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