Sally Uren: It's time to repurpose purpose

Sensemaking / Sally Uren: It's time to repurpose purpose

Given the trend in finding new uses for old objects, isn't it time we rethought the purpose of bigger things? Business, for instance?

By Sally Uren / 06 Sep 2012

Given the trend in finding new uses for old objects, isn't it time we rethought the purpose of bigger things? Business, for instance?

There’s a lot of talk at the moment on the power of ‘Why?’. We’re questioning anything from the prevailing status quo (look at the potency of the Occupy movement) to a particular aspect of our spluttering economy (see the work of Havas Media on Meaningful Brands, for example).

There’s also quite a bit of chatter about ‘repurposing’. People are asking how they might best use a particular object or entity, whatever it was originally meant for. It’s a practice which is rapidly gaining momentum in the fashion industry, where anything from bags to shoes can be made from tired old fabric or industrial waste.

These two concepts recently collided head on for me. I realised that in order to find new, practical ways of shifting from our current, very unsustainable trajectory towards a sustainable and equitable future, we should think about repurposing ‘purpose’ itself.

I have two things in mind in particular.

It’s high time we repurposed business models. Under today’s rules, flawed as they may be, a business has a fiduciary duty to maximise shareholder value. However, in order to merit this legal act of trust, I would argue that its primary purpose shouldn’t be to make money, but to meet society’s needs. Why? Because it’s hard to imagine a business capable of long-term value creation which is massively inefficient in its use of expensive and dwindling natural resources, and which is pumping out products and services that no-one needs. It’s no accident that visionary CEOs such as Unilever’s Paul Polman are realigning their business models to meet the needs of emerging economies – through nutrition, hygiene and so on.

While we’re at it, we also need to repurpose the City of London and Wall Street. I’m constantly amazed by the reluctance of the finance sector to engage with sustainability, particularly given how well things are going in this world. Not! The purpose of mainstream investors, sell-side analysts and the coterie of people with incomprehensible job titles should be to reward those businesses that are investing in sustainability and planning for the long term. Surely these are a better bet for our pensions?

I could go on. We also need to repurpose brands, which should be there to help build social purpose, to provide solutions to over-consumption, and not just to sell more and more stuff.

But there is something we can all do now. How about repurposing our time? How might we make each of our small actions count? Just imagine the change that would come from millions of deliberate actions, all designed to nudge us towards sustainability!

Sally Uren is Deputy Chief Executive at Forum for the Future.

What might the implications of this be? What related articles have you seen?

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