The benefits of activating purpose in organisations large and small

We live in a period where increasing volatility, complexity and uncertainty is the new business norm. I can’t remember a more complex, high speed, unsure time, nor a more exciting opportunity to be in business. Because I really believe all businesses have an opportunity to contribute something meaningful to the future of humanity and the planet, beyond simple philanthropy, CSR or even sustainability. A chance to ensure we all thrive on an interconnected planet for generations to come. But many organisations are frozen into inaction; simply overwhelmed by the speed of change and worried about how to plan for a future they can no longer predict or see.

How can you bridge the gap between the 20th century industrial model of doing business and the future emergent ways of doing business — like Forum for the Future’s net positive or Frederic Laloux’s ‘teal’ self-organised systems? One of the best ways to navigate a course through the choppy waters of change is activating purpose inside your business. It can help facilitate a change in attitudes and behaviours; help move an organisation into a shape which is future-fit. It can provide a platform to go from command and control to collaboration, from short-term extractive to net-positive from exclusive to inclusive, from problem-creation to problem-solving.

But can any business be purposeful? Can any kind of business get the benefits of increased engagement and profitability from purposeful enterprise?

During the last year I’ve met with and looked at hundreds of different types of organisations to work out what a model of transformation would look like to help any business make the leap to activating purpose. There are many different roads to Rome, but here are a couple — one very famous, one much less so.


Interface Global is legendary within the sustainability and brand community for the transformation it has made to its business by integrating purposeful action into its business model. It started with the vision of their then leader Ray Anderson — who passed away in 2011 — to build the world’s most sustainable company and deliver the company’s promise to eliminate any negative impact it may have on the environment by the year 2020 through the redesign of processes and products, the pioneering of new technologies, and efforts to reduce or eliminate waste and harmful emissions while increasing the use of renewable materials and sources of energy.

A leader with a great passion and an advanced and progressive stance on industrial ecology and sustainability, who also wanted to do something about poverty in the world, Ray Anderson was at the time running of the world’s most successful carpet tile manufacturers. Well, that’s probably a very limited description of Interface but for the purpose of illustration, it’s acceptable. On the surface there’s no immediate link between carpet tiles, ecology and poverty. But where there’s a will, there’s generally a way.

By a thorough examination of their supply chain, deep investigation into the potential for integrating purpose into their culture, and a very business-like approach to ensuring this could only add to the company’s reputation, growth and profitability — Interface built sustainable purpose-led projects into its business model that were almost unheard of at the start of the project.

On discovering that a particular plastic used in their industrial tiles was also the main component in many discarded fishing nets worldwide, Interface was able to start a worldwide trawl (pardon the pun) to see where and whether there was a possibility of connecting recycled plastic into production. A chance connection with the Zoological Society of London took them to the Philippines, where discarded plastic fishing nets were causing a major hazard to coral reefs and fishing stocks. The depletion of stocks and the damage to the local reef was making it almost impossible for local fishermen and fishing villages to survive as catches reduced. Fish was not only their staple diet, but also one of the only sources of income, so communities were suffering from growing poverty, unable to afford education for their children.

Collecting discarded fishing nets

Net-WorksTM project allows local villages to collect discarded nets, pack them for transport back to Europe to one of Interface’s main manufacturing partners, where the plastic is recycled into future tiles. The village sells the plastic back to Interface and the income achieved is put into a local cooperative bank, set up with help from Interface which funds new business start-ups, loans for education and other social activities need by the villagers. A win-win situation. Not easy to set up; many hurdles along the way but the benefits to Interface have been phenomenal and are almost incalculable. But let’s try:-

  • Interface has one of the highest staff retention and productivity rates of its industry
  • It’s a plastics company that makes carpet tiles but it’s highly sought after by Millennials as an employer of choice; it can choose from the available talent base. It’s a ‘cool’ company to work for.
  • Employee satisfaction rates have soared, motivation levels are high.
  • A position of leadership and high visibility in its own industry, but also on the worldwide sustainability stage; Interface executives are sought after speakers

Now just in case you think that’s only possible by a global multi-national business, let’s have a look at a local business in the United Kingdom.


Stopcock Plumbers is a successful small business operating in the UK. It’s visionary founder Hattie Hasan hails from Cyprus. As a child growing up in Cyprus, there wasn’t always water when Hattie turned the tap on. That might seem strange in the middle of Europe, but as an island in the Eastern Mediterranean, water scarcity and water infrastructure was hard to come by on parts of the island in the 60s and even into the 70s. Hattie grew up with an understanding of water scarcity.

Hattie Hassan of Stopcock Plumbers

Initially training and working as a teacher, Hattie’s affinity with water kept niggling away until one day she left teaching and re-trained as a plumber. It doesn’t take much to imagine the kind of flak she got in a fairly male-dominated world when she qualified and went looking for a position in an established plumbing firm. So like any good entrepreneur, Hattie started her own business. She employs only women, and unsurprisingly, Stopcocks Plumbers (love the name) is a thriving small enterprise in the UK.

Now you might think that taking on the issue of inequality in an oblique way and succeeding would be enough of a legacy. But no. Hattie and her business partner Mica also travel to Africa on a regular basis to train women plumbers in rural villages. With the main responsibility for collecting or pumping water falling to women, Hattie’s Kenyan plumbers are now able to cope with standard maintenance and repairs, and also have the possibility to set up in business for themselves with a trade qualification. Wat-er triumph!

Water harvesting in Kenya

The Stopcock Plumbers’ approach is a formidable way for an entrepreneur to integrate a deep interest and belief in the importance of access to fresh water for everyone into a business. Sometimes you just have to listen to that niggle!

What are the benefits:-

  • Niche market differentiation and brand stand out
  • Engaged, happy franchisees
  • Raised the visibility of the business enabling franchisee recruitment to grow substantially

Where do you go for inspiration if you want to start thinking about purpose?

Look no further than the UN Sustainable Development Goals or Global Goals. There are 17 to choose from each one offers a wealth of options and opportunity. Don’t we all have a responsibility to play a part in addressing the very real challenges we face on a global level? Why not just simply start by running information workshops to talk about the SDGs and see at what level these global goals inspire and interest people? You never know what may emerge. You also never know where that’s going to take you in examining your own brand, values, products and services and supply chain — which might feel nerve-wracking.

Consider the potential growth and financial benefits:-

A global survey carried out by Nielsen in 2014 found out that more than 50% of people prefer to work for a socially responsible company, say they are willing to spend more for a product or service that supports a cause, and check product packaging to ensure sustainable impact? How is your business doing in these areas?

Unilever reports that the brands in its Sustainable Living programme which include Lifebuoy, Dove, Ben & Jerry’s are outperforming other brands by up to 40%. They also accounted for 40% of Unilever’s growth in 2014 — a figure which is growing all the time. What are your growth statistics looking like?

To learn more about this purposeful enterprise revolution, why not check out an invaluable online event that I curated earlier this year — The Purposeful Enterprise Summit from 11–13th April 2016. You can stll purchase all the recordings at just £29 HERE.

If you’d like to learn more about the latest thinking, strategies and tools that are helping purpose-led companies get ahead, do sign up for my regular blog and newsletter right here.

Jenny Andersson is a brand & business strategy consultant working with organisations and start-ups to transform their future prospects through purpose-led enterprise. With over 30 years’ experience in brand communications, Jenny has worked with many of the world’s leading brands to integrate social and environmental purpose including Virgin, Levi Strauss and Timberland. She holds an MBA, MSc in Psychology, and is a Fellow of the RSA.

If you would like a confidential chat about activating purpose in your business, please contact me at I would love to help you #bridgethegap.