The Purpose-Driven Consumer

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman says some purpose-driven workers are now trying to bring those beliefs to how they spend.

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. 

The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer recently revealed that “a growing lack of faith in media and government” finds many people looking to businesses to make an impact on the world’s most pressing problems. This is especially relevant right now, during a season that tends to inspire a debate around consumerism and its impact on the environment. Over the past decade we have seen purpose-driven companies like Patagonia and REI using Black Friday – the largest sales holiday of the year – as an opportunity to double down on their mission: in 2011, Patagonia launched its now-legendary "Don't Buy This Jacket" campaign and in 2015, REI followed suit with #optoutside, closing its doors on the Friday after Thanksgiving and encouraging people to spend the day in nature.

While research shows that over 80% of consumers would prefer to buy from sustainability-minded brands, the gift-giving season raises more nuanced questions around where purpose-driven consumers should put their dollars.

What, beyond sustainability, can purpose-driven buyers look for as an indicator that companies are committed to more than the bottom line?

Fortune's Change the World list recently cited businesses– across every industry and sector– that are using the “creative tools of capitalism” to address a variety of societal crises. This includes PayPal, which took a stand against the war in Ukraine this year by shutting down its operations in Russia. The company also worked quickly to get its person-to–person payment network set up so people could directly funnel money to individuals and charities supporting Ukrainian citizens. PayPal raised more than $600 million for Ukrainian relief efforts.

The list also includes Walmart, the retail giant millions of consumers will turn to for their holiday shopping, which responded to America’s insulin crisis by launching a private-label insulin at a fraction of the cost. As part of its mission to make healthcare more accessible, Walmart has saved diabetics more than $15 million to date on their prescriptions.

“What do I value?” is a good question for purpose-driven consumers to start with. Over half of respondents to the Edelman Trust Barometer said they would prefer to support brands based on their beliefs and values. For some, this means supporting companies that protect the planet, and for others, it means making progress on other issues.

Korn Ferry recently teamed up with the Drucker Institute to uncover the most common characteristics leaders need in order to be successful in this new era– one where the crises are many and there is growing pressure on businesses to do something about them. Drucker’s model evaluates organizational “effectiveness” across five dimensions: customer satisfaction, employee engagement and development, innovation, social responsibility, and financial strength. In their collaborative research, Korn Ferry and Drucker found that Tolerance of Ambiguity, Adaptability, and Risk-Taking —three of twenty traits Korn Ferry assesses leaders for—were the most highly correlated with Drucker’s five dimensions.

For consumers looking to support purpose-driven businesses (and leaders running them) this is useful data. After all, purpose goes beyond intent. One survey found that while 82% of US workers affirmed the importance of purpose, only 42% said their company’s stated purpose had any real impact. One of the quickest ways to assess a company’s commitment is to look for the degree of risk it is willing to assume in service of its larger mission.

For some consumers, supporting Patagonia and REI feels right– companies focused on saving the planet and addressing the climate crisis. But for other consumers, the choice may look different. After all, our values vary: it’s up to us to know what we care about and to decide which companies to support.

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon

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