Does Dish Soap Need a 'Purpose?'

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman argues that conveying a company’s environmental and social impact is essential, regardless of the products or services it sells.

Daniel Goleman is author of the international best-seller Emotional Intelligence and of the forthcoming Optimal: How to Sustain Personal and Organizational Excellence Every Day. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

Looking back at old commercials tells us a lot about the shifting landscape of business. Ten years ago, the only thing people wanted from a good dish soap was for it to sufficiently clean their pans. Now, as more people begin to think more holistically and long term, dish soap is more often evaluated on an entirely different set of criteria—from the sustainability of the product itself to the larger context in which it is produced and distributed.

As many businesses pivot from a profit-first to a purpose-first agenda, they are trying to figure out what—beyond a values statement—it all really means. For many companies looking to center purpose, one of the best frameworks has been to zero in on environmental, social, and corporate governance, or ESG. This one little acronym gives us plenty to ponder:

  • Environmental: How does our company use resources and energy and how do we create and handle the waste we produce? 
  • Social: How do our actions affect people within and outside of the organization—from the communities we live in to the many people we employ?
  • Governance: When it comes to decision-making, how committed are we really to being honest, ethical, and fair?

Though brief, each question has significant implications for how an organization thinks, behaves, and operates—from producing goods to hiring new talent to shaping its employee-benefits package.

Research by the IBM Institute for Business Value (IBV) and the National Retail Federation found, perhaps surprisingly, that the largest segment of consumers chooses products and brands based on values alignment. On average, three in five respondents say products branded environmentally sustainable or socially responsible made up at least half of their last purchase. The study also found that more than two out of three respondents are more willing to apply for jobs at organizations they consider to be environmentally sustainable. Plus, among those who had changed jobs in the past year, roughly one-third had accepted a lower salary to work for a socially responsible or sustainable organization, taking an average pay cut of 28%. These trends may well accelerate as younger cohorts enter the workplace.

For more and more companies, the question isn’t, “What will it take to center ESG in the conversation?” but “What will it cost not to?”

One example of a company embracing purpose through zeroing in on ESG is Stryker, a medical-technology company headquartered in Michigan. Here’s how ESG breaks down for the firm.

  • Environmental: In 2022, the company’s sustainability team worked with more than 3,700 hospitals in the US and Canada on reprocessing programs, resulting in 11.2 million pounds of waste being diverted from landfills.
  • Social:  Stryker’s goal is to engage 85% of its direct suppliers on ESG performance assessments by the end of 2027, and as of 2022, it has achieved 47% progress.
  • Governance: Stryker encourages employees to participate in ESG efforts—by crowdsourcing ideas around sustainability, and by recruiting influential leaders to share learnings and best practices in order to evolve business plans in each division.

In one survey of Stryker’s employees, 91% said they were happy with the company’s commitment to making a positive impact, and 89% said it was a great place to work. Less than 60% of US workers rate their firm as a great place to work.

This shows two things—not only that an ESG framework is a productive inroad to organizational change, but also that a clear connection to something important (for employees, vendors, and customers) may be increasingly crucial to an organization’s long-term success.

No matter the industry, the changing landscape of business affects us all. Again, dish soap isn’t just dish soap anymore—it’s an opportunity to think about something bigger and more important than just a clean pan. Business isn’t just profit anymore— it’s an opportunity to think about how we are contributing to the health and well-being of people and the planet. 

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon


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