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Rethinking Company Purpose

More and more, companies are embracing the concept of corporate purpose as Americans' perceptions of big business have shifted. While declaring a purpose beyond profit is a starting point, how do you actually deliver on it to drive positive change for communities and society?

Remaking the corporate landscape

Chip Bergh, CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., says his company has been taking a stand for decades. "We desegregated our factories in the South ten years before it was the law of the land…It’s not just about making a buck and returning dollars to shareholders. It’s also about making a difference in communities and the world,” he says. Bergh shared a conversation with PayPal president Dan Schulman. Schulman stresses that corporate purpose is not simply hanging your company values on a wall, but ensuring that the products and services you offer are part and parcel of your social mission.

Corporate purpose doesn't just give companies a reason to pat themselves on the back — it actually drives success and profit. Watch Nancy Green, the president and CEO of Athleta, explain how shifting Athleta's focus to shared values, sustainable practices, and female empowerment changed the way the company profited while benefiting the bottom line.

A Corporate Purpose is Not Enough AIF 2019
How corporate purpose benefits the bottom line

  • Nancy Green

"Purpose without ambition and a path to societal and business benefit is worse than not having declared a purpose at all," says Bobbi Silten, managing director of the Shared Value Initiative. She believes that one of the most powerful ways to fulfill corporate purpose is through shared value. Unlike other forms of purpose-driven efforts like philanthropy or volunteering, Silten explains, shared value leverages a company’s core business which allows it to scale and multiply its impact on society. Read more about the rise of corporate purpose and the role that shared value plays in delivering on its potential:

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Having Corporate Purpose Benefits Business and Society
Having Corporate Purpose Benefits Business and Society

Prioritizing workers

Whether they’re large, small, or part of the gig economy, companies need to start thinking about how to better support their employees’ overall wellness. At Aspen Ideas: Health, leaders in the health industry talked about how companies can step in to assist workers who are increasingly in dire health and financial straits. It should be a siren call to companies, they say, to realign their business goals to enhance well-being.

the business case for health AIH 2019
“When employees bring stress to work, they’re unproductive, they’re more absent, they go out on disability more. We have a less productive workforce. We have a less engaged workforce. We have a less loyal workforce.”
When employees bring stress to work, they’re unproductive, they’re more absent, they go out on disability more. We have a less productive workforce. We have a less engaged workforce. We have a less loyal workforce.
— Jamie Kalamarides

To United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz, it's pretty simple. "If you don’t take care of your employees, you’re not going to take care of your customers," he says. Watch Munoz discuss how a global company creates and communicates shared values across its 90,000 employees.

  • Oscar Munoz

How can corporations make the world better?

It's no secret that some of the gravest issues facing the world, like climate change, are deeply tied to the activities of large corporations. So what can companies do to fix their past mistakes and set a corrective course for the future? Tom Fanning, the president and CEO of Southern Company, emphasizes the importance of evolving leadership and avoiding the pitfalls of hubris when dealing with revolutions in energy, environment, and technology. "When you think about the kind of people that are gonna lead this charge, they are not necessarily the same people that have gotten us to where we are," he says. "One of the greatest harbingers of future failure is, in fact, past success. So how do we reinvent ourselves?"

One area where that reinvention happens is in research and development. Leaders from Microsoft, JetBlue, and the Gates Foundation discussed the areas in R&D that give them hoping in combating climate change:

  • Brandon Nelson
  • Michelle Patron
  • Michael Boots

Taking a stand doesn't have to mean losing out on business. In fact, it can mean the opposite. Patagonia, the outdoor gear and clothing company, has donated its Black Friday sales to environmental groups and gave the money it saved from Trump’s tax cuts to conservation efforts. CEO Rose Marcario says she’s acting according to the company’s values and customers are supportive — so supportive that Patagonia has quadrupled its revenues. Hear from Marcario about how championing causes impacts the bottom line:

The takeaway

Purpose leaders across business sectors are rewriting the rules of corporate success as the world increasingly asks companies to think beyond profit. 

At worst, corporate purpose is an empty promise. But at best, it can be a radical tool for transforming the ways in which companies engage with their communities to advance both private incentives and public good.

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