As immense global disruption continues, businesses can and must take the opportunity to re-evaluate their organisational purpose if they are to emerge stronger and more prepared for the turbulent 2020s. Here, Forum for the Future’s Dr Sally Uren shares her thoughts on the ‘three D’s’ critical to ensuring this re-evaluation puts sustainability and the need to embrace a just transition at its heart.

COVID-19 is re-writing all the rules. As the fall-out continues to be felt socially, economically and environmentally, the spotlight is falling on the role of business in tackling the extreme climate and social crises we all face. Organisational purpose is being re-evaluated, but just how can we ensure this re-evaluation puts sustainability at the heart? 

Let’s first be clear on what we mean by purpose: for me, purpose should be an expression of how a company can contribute to a just and regenerative future. As outlined in Forum for the Future’s latest Future of Sustainability report, there are multiple future trajectories emerging from the pandemic – each determined by the actions we take today - but only one of these, Transform, has the potential to radically and sustainably change the ways in which we live and work at scale and pace. 

The stage is set for this transformation: COVID-19 has forced a stark realisation always there but often hidden: human, economic and planetary health are one and the same. It has exposed the interconnected nature and vulnerability of the natural and manmade systems on which we rely, with many buckling as the pandemic gained pace. And it’s added fuel to a change already underway: citizens are increasingly finding their voice, calling time – either as employees or customers – on long-standing yet often-overlooked social and environmental issues.

Against this backdrop, Transform sees us capitalise on the deep disruption we are experiencing. It is based on a mindset in which the health of people and planet are prioritised alongside profit – creating a future in which our global economic goals are broadened to see all three prosper through a just transition. This is where business leadership – and an underlying organisational purpose that has sustainability at its heart - comes in: it is critical to delivering the transformational change needed for a company to not only survive the pandemic, but to emerge stronger.

We know we are running out of time to create the future we want. The climate and social crises are intensifying and it’s no longer a question of if a business should put sustainability at its heart, but how.

So just how can a future-fit organisational purpose be defined?

Three D’s are critical:

First. A diagnosis that clearly defines where a company can make the biggest positive difference. This requires all businesses building their understanding of the world around us as a set of interconnected systems, and using that to create interventions capable of delivering multiple benefits across multiple systems.

Second. A company must then design a strategy with real potential to drive catalytic and self-sustaining change at specific leverage points capable of driving long-term impact. In part this means considering the enabling conditions that will determine long-term success, from policy frameworks to behaviour change.

Lastly, a company’s delivery strategy must ultimately focus on delivering systems change. Far from being fixed and linear, delivery must be adaptive and emergent, capable of embracing and navigating complexity and disruption. It must tackle the root causes of issues rather than apply sticking plaster solutions.

The ultimate business case

We know we are running out of time to create the future we want. The climate and social crises are intensifying and it’s no longer a question of if a business should put sustainability at its heart, but how. The three D’s present a new frame to support with this and are underpinned by the ultimate business case: quite simply, if we don’t create the conditions in which both people and planet can prosper, no business can be successful. The need to step up has never been greater, or more opportune.

This article is a re-edited version of a piece published on Sustainable Brands.