Written by Nick Woods

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I recently asked an early 20-something on our team what his first album was, preparing to hear something which came out after the 2016 Brexit referendum. His answer? “I don’t think I’ve ever bought an album, that feels like an old person thing to do.”

I was still reeling, days later, when news broke about Yvon Chouinard, the 83-year old billionaire founder of Patagonia, giving away his company to a charitable trust and saying any profit not reinvested in running the business would go to fighting climate change… “the earth is now our only shareholder.”

While these two happenings seem a world apart, there is a very clear thread: in the very near future, the idea that a company can simply be about profit and growth will be as outdated, old-school and anathema as the idea of buying an album now is to some.

Why?  Well, here’s a little weight to the thesis.

First, consumers already say they want ‘good’; in the 2020 Strength of Purpose Study Zeno reported that global customers are four to six times more likely to purchase, protect and champion purpose-driven companies. In 2021 Havas said 64% of the world’s population prefer to buy from companies with a reputation for having a purpose other than just profit. Razorfish say 82% of consumers reported the brands they buy stand for a greater mission/purpose. Even allowing for consumers to be over-reporting to some extent (everyone wants to be good, but do we all put our money where our mouth is?), there is clearly a wave at least forming.

Second, look around your friends and family and see how many have or are switching to electric vehicles, considering heat pumps for their homes, consciously offsetting their flights, eating less meat/more plants, reusing, reducing and recycling, thinking about their mental health, counting their steps or watching their kids develop almost militant sustainability tendencies. Life is complex and fractured and consumers are increasingly aware of myriad issues affecting the planet and society and think they all need a collective solution: government, charities, businesses and individuals – everyone, and every organisation, has to be active.

Third, if you know anyone under 25, talk to them and listen to them. A lot of them can’t understand why such a small percentage of the world holds such a huge percentage of its wealth or why that percentage is so overwhelmingly male and white. They can’t understand inequality or a lack of diversity or why you wouldn’t be entirely inclusive. They have been and are being taught about climate change from primary school.

Buy an album? Weird old person. Be a business which is ‘just’ profitable? Weird old company.

For the last 200 years, running/owning a business has been about how much money you could make… for yourself and your shareholders. A few people got very rich. Yay them.

But if you’re running a business now, you have to do more. Making profit is great, not because it can make a few rich, but because of what it allows you to do.

I appreciate Unilever is under some pressure, with influential voices suggesting that it’s gone too far with its drive to purpose. But I also (still) love Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty and Hellman’s proposition around being “on the side of food”, they’re both clever and purposeful.  What I want from Unilever is more, not less. I equally love that Crayola’s purpose is around encouraging kids to be creative, that Lucky Saint is about trying to inspire the world to live better and that Bodyform exists to break taboos that hold women back… they’re all going in the right direction, but we should be asking still more of them.

Business growth is important for all of them, but only because of what it allows them to do.

Climate-change, animal welfare, ocean health, care for the elderly, loneliness, depression, anxiety, recycling, waste, the decline of the family, work-life balance, biodiversity, plastic, addictions, obesity, access to healthy food, access to fitness/movement, fake news, sexuality, gender identity rights, media-related issues, self-esteem, broad mental health issues, race relations, online safety, nationalism, responsible spending and debt, water conservation, the negative impact of technology, managing the menopause, improving sexual health, unrequited love, having a good time sober, building friendships, grief, helping people be fitter, stronger, happier, kinder, more able, more content, more resilient… there are literally dozens of issues out there for companies to get involved with.

Pick an issue, any issue and get creative.

Yes, it’s important to grow, but it’s only important because of what that growth allows us to do.

Imagine if we had dozens of successful, growing companies which exist only to help fight mental health.

Imagine if every brand currently contributing to the nation’s obesity issue used its wealth to re-engineer itself to only fight obesity.

Imagine if there were hundreds of female-focused brands whose teams were divided in two – half working out how to create growth, half working out how to use it on behalf of women.

Imagine if thousands of corporate annual reports were more focused on what they achieved for the world, and less on what they did for themselves.

Patagonia may have been founded in the early Seventies, it may be bigger than ever today, but they have also given us a glimpse of the future. Just like my young, non-album buying, colleague.

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