A Required Shared Purpose

Best-selling author Dan Goleman says a proposed climate-reporting regulation may help firms reimagine business around a common purpose.

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

Last March, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)  proposed a new rule that would require public companies to provide detailed reporting of their climate-related information including greenhouse gas emissions, net-zero transition plans, and who on their board of directors has expertise with climate-related risks.

While it has yet to be adopted, this proposal has already pushed climate change further up the corporate agenda, making sustainability a shared purpose just about all of us will need to embrace.

“You have companies that are up to date on climate-change risks, but many are years behind,” says Anthony Goodman, a Korn Ferry senior partner, ESG expert, and head of the firms’ Board Effectiveness practice. “This is certainly going to focus their attention on it.”

But the SEC isn’t the only reason companies are turning their attention toward the climate crisis. Seventy-five percent of U.S. consumers say a brand’s sustainability is important when making a purchase – and according to recent research from consumer analytics firm First Insight and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, 62% prefer buying from sustainable brands.

This is particularly true for Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2009) who are so often referred to as the ‘eco-conscious generation’. These young people grew up watching hurricanes, floods, and fires permeate their newsfeed. For them, prioritizing climate change is almost no-brainer.

Mimi Ausland, 25, is the founder of Free the Ocean, a company aiming to remove plastic from the ocean by promoting more sustainable products. “I cannot imagine a career that isn’t connected to even just being a small part of a solution,” she told The Guardian last year.

Not only is this generation of environmental activists building their own small businesses, but they are also inspiring some of the world’s largest organizations to take action on behalf of the planet.

Marissa McGowan is the Chief Sustainability Officer for North America at L’Oréal. Under McGowan, the France-based cosmetics giant has become the founding donor of The Recycling Partnership’s Small Town Access Fund (STAF), an effort which supports recycling programs in U.S. towns with less than 50,000 residents.

 “My hope comes from younger people who see sustainability as a given,” says McGowan, “it’s not political, it’s not something that’s debatable. Climate change is happening.”

The Fund L’Oreal is supporting is estimated to increase recycling access and education for nearly 45,000 households, delivering more than 6 million pounds of new recyclables into the system and out of landfills per year.

But if the SEC rule is adopted, partnerships alone aren’t going to be enough. Companies – particularly those in the business of selling plastic – are going to need to take a good look at how they produce, package and transport their own products.

This is going to require companies to take a whole new look at design.

According to Sophie Thomas, the founding director of Thomas.Matthews; a London based design agency focused on creating award-winning, innovative and highly sustainable design solutions, “80% of a products environmental footprint is predetermined at the design phase.”

Thomas is one of the brains behind Design Declares – a climate emergency declaration campaign that aims to position designers alongside “policy makers, campaigners and scientists” in the climate action movement. The campaign – which targets communication, digital, industrial, and service designers – outlines eight “Acts of Emergency”, all in an effort to unite designers and “build a voice” for the industry.

“We know there are a lot of people in the design industry who are getting more and more frustrated that nothing is really being done,” says Thomas, “even though we are an industry that’s really driving change and having an impact.”

To date, there hasn’t been much standardization around how companies report on their sustainability efforts. But moving forward, we may be looking at more rigid expectations. Partnerships, design teams, and manufacturing and shipping procedures: in order to embrace the shared purpose of saving the planet, companies are going to have to evaluate efforts in just about every part of their business.

Even more important: once reporting becomes standardized, consumers will have an even clearer sense of who is making strides, and who isn’t. 

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.