Finding Purpose in Bangkok

I just had the pleasure and privilege of doing the opening keynote at Sustainable Brands Bangkok 2016. The “Sustainable Brands” concept has truly spread around the world. What’s brilliant about KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz‘s creation is the way it attracts a broad business audience: not just the “true believers” in sustainability and CSR, but also the curious, and the mildly skeptical. It inspires them all to engage — and engagement is step 1.
sustainablebrandsbkk-princessIf my speech was an energizing waker-upper (I had the audience do a couple of short change games with me), the following talk — delivered with compellingly serene sincerity — was a call to reflection and deep thought. A member of Bhutan’s royal family, HRH Princess Kezang Choden Wangchuk (pictured, from my Instagram account), focused on ethics and called on businesses to consider their “ultimate purpose,” in the context of Bhutan’s “national happiness” concept. Whenever I’ve lectured on ethics (and I have), I doubt I have ever received the rapturous attention that this crowd seemed to give Her Royal Highness. Then she floated out of the auditorium, with an entourage of a dozen people, as though she had been urgently recalled to the Himalayas. (Probably she had some Thai royals to visit.)
During the speeches that came after, it finally got through to me what this conference is about. I thought “Activating Purpose” was just the conference’s title. Somehow I’d missed the fact that “Purpose” is the new “CSR,” or “sustainability,” or “corporate citizenship”. It’s not just a word, but a concept — though still a “fragile” one, said Wander Meijer of Globescan. He showed data that confirmed what you might guess about how much the average person in our world (in 25 countries) trusts the average corporation: exactly 0. (Fortunately the number is not negative, which is possible on their scale.) Corporations that are identified with some sense of purpose that is not just making money do better, in pure return-on-investment terms, than those that don’t, just as has been previously proven for sustainability, CSR etc.
But “Purpose” is “the new black” in the sense that everyone can wear it, it looks good on everyone, it’s not hard to explain. In some ways, sustainable development has gotten easier to digest as a company, because you can just download the 17 SDGs. “Use them all, or pick some subset, and make that your purpose. Easy!” said Steve Young, chair of the Caux Round Table. But he also acknowledged that explaining the 17 goals and 169 sub-goals (or “Targets” in UN-speak) is probably more complicated than just saying “Purpose.” Since he also managed to tie the financial advantages and the SDGs to essentially all the great religious and moral traditions of the world — in 15 minutes! — I think could manage to make anything look easy.
As I write this, my moment at Sustainable Brands has actually just begun. I still have a workshop to lead, and there is another day of speeches, and there are books to sign (I was launching Parachuting Cats into Borneo in Asia here). But it’s already introduced me to a whole new strain of the sustainability movement — where I’ve lived for three decades — that I did not really know existed. I guess that’s one reason why I’m here.
Nice to have a sense of Purpose.

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