Changing the World, Gradually

The purpose movement is taking hold at many companies not associated with social good. Don’t discount their efforts, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and co-developer of the Goleman EI online learning platform, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

In 2016, Philip Morris International, the umbrella company for brands such as Marlboro and Parliament, announced a new purpose: to deliver a smoke-free future. Their goal: to have at least 30% of their customers, about 40 million cigarette smokers, make the switch to its smoke-free products by 2025.

Considering 1.1 billion people around the world smoke cigarettes or other combustible tobacco products, this statement prompted most onlookers to raise an eyebrow. Afterall, how can “heated tobacco” products be good for human health?

Still, Philip Morris has put a stake in the ground. In 2019, the company reported that 98% of its research and development budget was going towards meeting its goal and, earlier this year, its board of directors re-affirmed the company’s commitment to a smoke-free future in their annual letter to shareholders.

“For us, our smoke-free vision and purpose is about creating a business that brings a positive societal change and, therefore, is much more sustainable,” says the company’s CEO, André Calantzopoulos. “We are dedicated to using our resources and ingenuity to develop and commercialize better alternatives for the men and women who smoke, as fast as possible.”

This past summer, the firm partnered with an independent research firm to survey more than 19,000 adults across Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Africa about their understanding of science and its role in business. It found that 85% of adults agreed that “companies should develop science-based solutions to some of the biggest problems facing society today” and nine out of ten said they expect companies to “continually research and innovate to improve their product in the interest of public health.”

While the company might not be putting an end to smoking, they are doing something else: using science to make incremental moves towards a better future.

This same premise showed up in other industries, too. About 60-75% of emerging infectious diseases in humans come from animals. “COVID heightened awareness around the impact of meat on the environment and health and encouraged more people to find alternatives to the animal-based food supply chain,” says, Frederika Tielenius Kruythoff, a Korn Ferry senior client partner responsible for the firm’s Agribusiness practice in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Analysts predict that the plant-based protein market will be worth $85 billion in the next ten years. Burger King’s new ‘Impossible Whopper’ is part of a new trend with start-ups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat suddenly worth billions of dollars.

While it has been decades since we’ve equated fast food and cigarettes with a healthier society, both of these industries are making headway in establishing a purpose beyond profit and market share.

McDonald’s new long-term strategy, “Accelerating the Arches,” identifies four areas of focus: sourcing quality ingredients; driving climate action; connecting with communities in times of need; and increasing equity by providing more opportunities for employees.

“Customers today want to know the brands they love share their values and serve as a force for good in the world,” says Alistair Macrow, McDonald’s global chief marketing officer, said in a recent statement.

The home of the Big Mac aims to source 100% of guest packaging from renewable, recycled, or certified sources by 2025; reduce barriers for employment; and donate millions of pounds of food from its restaurants and supply chains.

Robert Eccles is a leading authority on the integration of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors. A former Harvard Business School professor and founding chairman of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, he has been called the world’s foremost academic expert on integrated reporting. When he announced, in 2019, that Philip Morris had become one of his clients, he was met with uproar.

How can a man like Eccles, who reportedly wants all businesses to write a board-approved statement of purpose by 2025, get behind a company in an industry that increases the risk of fatal disease in millions of people each year?

In an interview with Bloomberg, Eccles said, “Look, if you don’t want to invest in a tobacco company, or nuclear weapons company, or adult entertainment, or gambling, or food and beverage because it creates obesity, it’s completely fine. But don’t confuse that with creating system-level change. Nobody’s given me an argument of how excluding tobacco is going to solve the problem of a billion people smoking cigarettes.”

Maybe Eccles has a point. Purpose isn’t about going in blindly and changing the world overnight. It’s about looking to science, analyzing data, and asking ourselves a very simple question: “How can we do better?”

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.