Forum for the Future was founded in 1996 on the belief that businesses can - and must - be a force for good. Today, we’re doubling down on that belief, enabling leaders to look beyond short-term profit maximisation to ask fundamental questions about why their business exists and how it operates. This comes as expectations of businesses to tackle our global challenges mount; in response, are businesses stepping up or stepping back? Will they play the role of hero or villain? And where should they focus?

Here, Forum’s Global Strategic Lead for the Purpose of Business, James Payne, hones in on the opportunity for businesses in transition, highlighting four key unlocks: visionary leadership, rethinking supply chains, reimagining consumption and creating an enabling context. 

I’d be foolish to tell you that I thought my kids are going to enjoy a planet that is remotely the same shape as the one I’ve enjoyed in my life… …I think we have lost the right to be pessimistic and just sit around and say, ‘I guess this isn’t going to work out.’ ” 

When I read these words from an interview with Ryan Gellart, CEO of Patagonia, it highlighted the need to be both crystal clear about the polycrisis humanity faces, and also the imperative to use this as a wake up call to fundamentally transform how our societies and our economies work. With the future of civilisation in the balance in what is undoubtedly the decisive decade, now is not the time to sit on the sidelines, accept incrementalism or fall into despondency.

As calls for businesses to step up intensify, what role are businesses playing?

Businesses: super-villains or unlikely heroes?

Some, particularly in civil society and philanthropy, can adopt an almost cartoon super-villain characterisation of business. This isn’t completely unfounded, with some business value chains rooted in exploitative, colonial mindsets and with many businesses operating in a way that is actively damaging human and planetary health. 

This damning view is reinforced when chilling business practices come to light, such as the testimony to congress exposing Exxon’s startlingly accurate predictions of climate breakdown in the 1980s while continuing to raise doubts about the need for climate action. I’ve worked in or with businesses for most of my career, and I’ve experienced firsthand the pressure of unspoken norms to accept approaches that are exploitative, extractive or even harmful as ‘how business works’.

But as the window to meaningfully address our deeply interconnected climate, nature and inequality crises narrows, we need every part of our societies and economies to take bold action. This includes the private sector. Ahead of government and the media, businesses are the most trusted institution right now - with around 80% of people looking to them to solve our global challenges. 

So how are they responding?

Incrementalism or transformation; breakdown or breakthrough?

Forum was founded in 1996 on the belief that businesses can be a force for good. Today, we’re doubling down on that belief. Business leadership and innovation has become critical in determining whether we will be successful in creating the breakthrough we need. Yet conventional ‘sustainability’ strategies and incrementalist, tick-box approaches to ESG are falling short of the systemic and urgent transformation needed. 

Instead, we must focus on catalyzing an urgent transition. One that sees us shift away from business approaches that are exploitative and extractive to ones that are socially just and that regenerate the natural  living systems our civilisation depends upon, seeing humans as part of nature, not somehow separate from it. We call this a just and regenerative mindset and believe it should be at the heart of running any business. 

So where is Forum focusing? And how can we support a business to transform? 

Four key unlocks

We are focusing on four areas where we believe we are best positioned to catalyze deep and urgent change in the purpose of business in society and our economy. 

Based on almost 30 years experience, we bring a unique blend of skills, experience and expertise in:

1. Inspiring visionary leadership 

We work with Executive and Non-Executive teams and family business owners to transform their understanding of the potential of business to make a hopeful, liveable future possible. This involves supporting them to adopt a just and regenerative mindset, define their change-making purpose and understand what’s needed to truly embed, live and deliver purpose-led change. 

Forum has always focused on leadership in sustainability. Our recent work includes supporting purpose-led strategy development for family-owned businesses such as Aldi South or Wates Group. It also includes building the capacity of leaders at trailblazing PLCs like Unilever, Ingka Group and Diageo.

“As companies face into a more uncertain and volatile operating context in the 2020s, purpose-led business transformation has never been more important. Forum combines deep insight into sustainability issues with the facilitation skills needed to effectively engage the most senior leaders in a business.” - Anke Ehlers, Managing Director CRI, Aldi South

2. Reconfiguring value chains 

From human rights violations and growing distribution emissions to gaps on our shelves and excessive price hikes, the spotlight on value chains has never been so intense. Businesses have both an urgent need and opportunity to rethink them.

Forum develops new approaches to procurement, value network relationships, governance and market mechanisms, each of which enable businesses to be just and regenerative. The 2020s are calling for a shift from narrowly focusing on cost and efficiency to creating and distributing value more equitably across value networks, within planetary boundaries and in ways that restore ecosystem health. 

So what does a fit-for-the-future value chain model really look like? This is the central question in our work with businesses such as Ramatex and Dole and in our collaborative programmes, such as Cotton 2040, Responsible Recruitment and Future-fit Value Chains

“External factors associated with a deteriorating planet - from tougher legal regulations to preventing increased climate migration – are risks to businesses and their associated value chains. Understanding this… …informs us where continuous improvement will not be sufficient and how in some cases we will need to completely transform the way we operate. Our work with Forum for the Future is supporting us on this journey.”CSO, Aditya Birla Group

3. Transforming consumption

Endless growth in resource consumption on a finite planet is simply untenable and there’s an urgent need to reimagine how and why we consume goods and services. It’s about understanding how we can all enjoy a good life that meets our needs and wellbeing within planetary boundaries.

That’s why we’re working with media, brands, citizens and others to envision and explore how more sustainable ways of consuming and living can be aspirational, affordable and actioned. 

We’re working with leading organisations such as Sustainable Brands and Havas Group and have collaborative initiatives such as our Reimagining Consumption programme.

“Sustainable Brands and Forum for the Future have long shared an ambition to reimagine the purpose and role of brands and business. This is why we are so pleased to be working together on a new initiative, Reimaging Consumption, and co-hosting a session exploring what just and regenerative consumption models might look like at our upcoming Brand Led Culture change event.” - KoAnn Skrzyniarz, Chief Executive, Sustainable Brands 

4. Creating an enabling context

The influence of business extends well beyond its immediate operations, so how can this influence be leveraged? How can key actors such as investors, accountability institutions and civil society shape an enabling context for business that supports the transformation needed, rather than locking in the status quo? 

It’s here Forum has set up the School for System Change in Finance with Aviva; is a founding partner of the Regenerative Investment Lab; has worked with emerging accountability mechanisms such as the Taskforce for Inequality-related Financial Disclosure; is exploring civil society’s role in shaping business action on climate through our American Climate Futures programme. 

"The complex challenges facing the world today - inequality, climate change, biodiversity loss, among others - require holistic solutions that are co-created through multi-stakeholder and multi-disciplinary approaches. I’ve been consistently impressed with Forum for the Future’s design and facilitation skills which guide such stakeholders through co-learning and co-design, opening pathways for shared solutions." - Delilah Rothenberg, Executive Director, Predistribution Initiative 

Four areas; seven years

We have four focus areas, and seven years left in the decisive decade. The polycrisis is intensifying everyday and there is no case for business inaction. We need to create a more liveable future; it’s within our grasp. Whether we realise it will depend on just how transformational businesses choose to be.