When I was the public affairs manager of a major European carmaker, I often wondered what was missing. Missing in terms of a sense of conviction created by the sustainability perspective and strategy of the missions I worked on. It was not that I could not act in line with such principles. It was that the company’s business strategies at that time, as Europe staggered under the economic crisis, provided no vision beyond short-term goals.
It quickly became clear that this lack of direction and guidance was not an isolated case. Many of my former colleagues were also frustrated by the decline of the firm’s core guiding principles, increasingly undermining the employees’ moral standing as the effects of the crisis worsened.
I tell this story solely to share an experience that may serve as an example. Leaving this job liberated me from a situation where we employees were prisoners of the company’s strategic deficiencies, trapped by a growing fear of job loss. Only by leaving did I, and many other colleagues, realise what had really been missing in our working lives: a purpose.
Years later, I now meet more and more people — from my former workplace and many other companies — who shared this experience. Many of them had not been able to identify and find this missing element given the demanding pace of their industrial careers.
But it is not too late to create the purpose we look for in our lives in our business activities. This is more than a new trend. This is a real need, based on society’s collective growing awareness. If the recent and ongoing economic crisis has one healthy side effect, it might be the profound questioning of the legitimacy of inequalities. This moves us towards a more balanced economy, one which today already shapes the lives of many, from workers to executives. They are collectively knocking on a door that opens to the power of the many.
As essential and inherent parts of any economic system, businesses cannot ignore this quest for purpose. Some have already risen to the challenge, giving us striking examples of successful, meaningful business strategies and creating sustainable value — all based on the identification and implementation of each company’s purpose. Meanwhile, others are hesitating, observing or even doubting if a purpose-based business model could work.
Sure, it may be easier for startups, family businesses and small-to-medium-sized enterprises to embrace public value, compared to the industrial giants of the „old economy“. But no business can close its eyes to the present and future needs of a sustainable and balanced economy — business on a global level that is not only good for some individuals, companies, countries or economic regions but good for all of us.
As customers and businesses increasingly search for purpose in business strategies, one area to explore is the process of business value creation through creating public value. This automatically generates benefits for all stakeholders involved.
A recent example comes from France, where dairy farmers suffer from the global pattern of decreasing milk prices. The initiative „C’est qui le patron?“ („Who’s the boss?“) introduced equitable milk production and distribution in direct collaboration with consumers. Starting from the necessary and justified price that would allow a dairy farmer to make a living from milk production, the consumers were confronted, and thus sensitised, to eight questions in an online enquiry.
Were they ready to pay 8 cents more for one litre of milk, in order to fairly remunerate the producer, resulting in an increase of about 4 Euros for the average milk consumption of 50 litres per year? Were they ready to give 2 cents more to allow the farmer one week of holiday per year? Five more cents are dedicated to the removal of genetically-modified animal feed, and another 3-to-5 cents to the variable duration of pasture grazing during the year.
The results are telling. The act of showing consumers their direct impact on the delivered product led to a commonly-accepted price of 99 cents for one litre of „Who’s the boss?“ milk (which is now available at 9,000 points of sale in France). By buying this milk, consumers decide on the principles and benefits of equitable production every day.
This small example hints at a deep and very serious truth — that the increasing desire and capability for creating public value through business can be enabled by the combined efforts of producers and consumers. Everyone can be involved and participate in shaping a fair economy that benefits all of us.
More and more consumers are recognising this and demanding sustainable production and value chains. Thus, businesses have to react in order to justify their future business models and strategies. First, they have to understand that they cannot create a better value than public value to satisfy common needs. Only then will their newly-defined purpose allow them economic success, rooted in society.