Harnessing private sector purpose to achieve the global goals

In 2015, 193 UN member states signed up to 17 Global Goals for a better world by 2030. In their simplest form, these Goals can end poverty, fight inequality and address climate change. 

The world’s largest 1,000 companies can make or break our progress towards the Global Goals.

But leaders need to embed purpose and profit in their business plans and investment strategies.

Harnessing private sector purpose to achieve the Global Goals, a report by Leaders’ Quest for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, sets out the prevailing purpose landscape and offers clear-cut ways for business to ramp up its efforts.

Report at-a-glance

We researched the most up-to-date work on purpose and interviewed more than 50 business experts and C-suite/executive leaders.

We learned how they define the fundamentals of purpose-driven business, and how much progress has been made. We explored what they see as the key levers to accelerate action and impact (using the Global Goals and planetary boundaries as a metric of success). 

Why now?

It’s crunch time for humanity. We’re living beyond our planetary boundaries, and the growing sense of mistrust in political leadership is undermining our ability to collaborate – at a time when joint action is imperative.

Yet there’s good news too. We’re seeing increasing momentum – from a broad range of stakeholders – for business to focus on people, planet and profit. And more importantly, business and investors are responding to the coalition of voices urging action.

From CEO roundtable announcements, to corporate coalitions on health, fashion and food. From public mobilisation efforts to employee campaigns and radical political policies that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. The mood is turning.

And this puts business in the spotlight to make a wider contribution.

What’s happening?

Purpose is top of mind for many CEOs, but there’s no unified view on how to articulate it, let alone embed it. There’s a face-off between a free-markets mentality and an anti-business mentality – and an ill-defined midway course, where responsibility is viewed as a key element of the license to operate.

But private sector business leaders – especially – face trade-offs if they want to embrace sustainability. Cost pressures today versus long-term strategy; profit-only objectives versus ethical innovation.

Current regulatory frameworks hinder progress, while benchmarking standards and metrics need consolidating and reshaping. Capitalism’s iOS, if you like, needs adapting.

The good news

There’s growing realisation that purpose-driven business helps leaders innovate, manage risks, attract (and keep) top talent and benefit from consumer/market opportunities on the horizon.

What can change?

This diagram shows the 5 elements of purpose drive business transformation
  • A purpose ‘north star’ can set the course for operational plans underpinned by ESG metrics (eg Science Based Targets), to benefit multiple-stakeholders (not just shareholders).
  • There’s scope for relationships between business and state to be reinvented. A government can set standards, apply them to companies and offer a sense of stability. Known as ‘ambition loops’, these can operate at national or city level, reinforcing regulation which enables business to pursue long-term targets, rather than competitive races to the bottom.
  • Simplified, widely acknowledged public measurement metrics (scorecards, league tables) will incentivise companies to act.
  • A critical role can be played by institutional investors. For example, by applying higher risk discounts to regenerative projects (renewables etc) and encouraging strategies that align with the Global Goals, Science Based Targets and high ESG scores.
  • Radical collaborations (such as the UN Principles for Responsible Banking or Countdown) can bring together governments, civil society and the private sector.

Next steps

Progress will come from a combination of public campaigns, government regulation, updated benchmarks and metrics, and a rethink by investors. Above all, it will start with courageous individual leadership, at CEO, staff and Board levels.

Our report offers practical suggestions for action and invites you to join.