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7 inspiring examples of purpose-led companies changing their industries for the better

Below I have brought together seven examples of purpose-driven businesses that are lighting the path towards a prosperous, sustainable economy. 


I've selected them because they are all challenging the status quo in their sectors; acting boldly and innovating business models to show that things can be done differently and better. 


They all have a clear sense of purpose and use it as a catalyst for bold, meaningful change. They also have a beady eye for detail, working hard to make sure their values are applied consistently in every aspect of their operations. 


They range from small businesses to leading multinationals. Some are B Corps, others are not. They operate in differing sectors, across B2C and B2B, showing that purpose-led, ethical and sustainable approaches can be applied everywhere. 


I hope they will inspire you as much as they inspire me. If you think I've got anything wrong about these companies, do comment... and/or say which other purpose leaders would be on your top list? 


7 Purpose-Led Companies


Decathlon

What if... sport could be accessible to all, and sustainable? 

French sports retailer Decathlon has been around since 1976 and now has more than 2,000 stores worldwide. Decathlon's mission is 'to sustainably make the pleasure and benefits of practising sport accessible to the many'


The company's big challenge is similar to that of IKEA. Decathlon specialises in making their goods affordable and accessible, but with that comes a huge environmental footprint. The good news: sustainability is in their mission statement, and they're tackling it head on. 


It helps that they design their own products, and they are targeting that all of their products will include 'Ecodesign' elements by 2026. From there it's all about Repair, Resale and Rental. Workshop services are available for bikes and scooters, and spare parts are sold for products such as hiking backpacks. They sell returned products as 'second use' on their website and are expanding a 'Buy Back' programme for product resale. Customers are also now able to rent products including bikes, paddle boards, and tennis rackets. 


As an example, take the Quecha hiking shoe. It’s super-affordable: costing just £18. Decathlon sold 3 million pairs last year. The clever folks in R&D have reduced the number of different materials used, enabling 100% recyclability; and reducing emissions in production by 16%.  At end of life customers can bring the shoes back to Decathlon, where they are recycled to be given a new lease of life as swimming fins.


Ørsted

What if.... we could leave fossil fuels in the ground?

In 2009 Denmark's DONG Energy decided on a new vision and strategy called 85/15.  In the wake of COP15 in Copenhagen, the idea was to change their energy generation mix from 15 percent renewable to 85 percent renewable by 2040. 


In 2017 they renamed as Ørsted and confirmed their ambition with a new purpose statement: To help create a world that runs entirely on green energy. 


Ørsted hit their 85/15 goal in 2019, within one decade and 21 years ahead of schedule. 


The company is now the world's largest developer of offshore wind power (Jan 2022 data).

The company's target is to produce 99% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. 


Over the last 18 months they (and their wind power competitors) have had a tough time with input cost inflation leading to redundancies. However this shouldn't take away from their extraordinary achievement, showing how a fossil fuel company can move quickly to become a renewables leader. 


As a business, you have to make a profit, but you also need to make a broader contribution to society. We learned that  these things aren’t in opposition to each other. In fact, they go hand  in hand. Henrik Poulsen, former Chief Executive Officer, Orsted

TeeMill

What if.... our clothing had a second, third, and fourth life? 

I first came across TeeMill back in 2017, when Co-Founder Rob Drake-Knight talked about the company at a sustainability conference, and I was blown away by his mission to "to accelerate the transition to a circular economy by designing the digital infrastructure needed to make it work.”


He and his brother Mart decided that we're all way too accepting of the world's 'take/make/dispose' linear economy. In his extraordinary TEDx talk (findable on the Teemill website) Mart highlights three stark facts. 60% of clothing is made from plastic; 99% goes to landfill or incineration; 40 tonnes of clothing is burned or buried every second (source: McKinsey). 


That inspired them to start a T-shirt business on the Isle of Wight, and prove things can be done very differently. For Rob and Mart, waste is a business cost as well as causing environmental damage. So, if you can stop the waste you can save the cost and reinvest it in more expensive sustainable raw materials, such as organic cotton and recycled paper mailer bags. 


The first huge cause of waste is that the fashion industry manufactures goods speculatively, ie they're hoping there will be a customer who wants to buy it. Too often there isn't: 40% of clothing is never worn. Instead, TeeMill connects online ordering directly to its digital printing facilities, meaning that they only ever produce a garment that's wanted and paid for. 


Their second focus is to get their own t-shirts and other brands' cotton clothing back at 'end of life', so they can use the materials again. Every TeeMill t-shirt has a label with a QR code. Customers are encouraged to scan the label with their phone and activate a freepost return process. The recovered organic material is spun into new organic yarn and used in their own Rapanui brand clothing as well as by other brands such as WWF. 


Finally, the brothers have scaled it up by creating the world's first open-access circular supply chain. Any brand can set up an account with TeeMill and start producing garments using the same cotton sourcing, renewably powered factory, packaging and return loop. So far TeeMill have saved 1.5 tonnes of plastic, recovered 35,000kg of organic material and saved 700 million litres of water. 

The economy is not something that happens to us, it is us. It's just a word for the playground where all our ideas and actions play out, and anybody can create and contribute. Mart Drake-Knight ('Mr Bin Man' TEDx Talk, 2023) 

Interface

What if.... office carpet tiles could be carbon negative? 

Interface Inc. is a global manufacturer of commercial flooring, well known in sustainability circles but little known beyond.


Founded in 1973 by the now legendary Ray Anderson, for 21 years the company was heavily reliant on fossil fuels in the manufacture of their carpet tiles. In 1994 Ray had what he called his 'spear in the chest' realisation that business had to change, if we're to secure a viable future for generations to come. 


Ray set down the goal that Interface should have no negative environmental impacts on the planet by the year 2020. This was subsequently named 'Mission 2020' and in Nov 2019, the company declared significant successes, including 96% reduction in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions globally; and every flooring product that Interface sold was carbon neutral across its full life cycle.


Back in 2016 the company had already set its sights even higher with their 'Climate Take Back' sustainability mission, which aimed to create a business movement to reverse global warming; and to become a carbon negative company by 2040.


For me, what stands out about Interface is how they have mobilised all business functions to be 'carbon ambassadors for change'. In their supply chain, their NetWorks initiative supports impoverished fishing communities to collect discarded fishing nets to be used as recycled yarn for making carpet tiles. Their R&D team has developed the world's first carbon-neutral carpet backing. Their sales teams are highly-trained climate advocates, working hard to make sure client companies appreciate the value of their carbon neutral products. 


Interface's purpose statement is to 'lead industry to love the world'. Critics would no doubt see this as business 'wokery', wondering whether Interface also intends to make profits for its shareholders. 


Ray Anderson, were he alive today, would probably answer that there are easier ways to make money in the short term, but if we want a viable society and planet in the longer term, this is the only way to do it. 


Discover 7 purpose-led companies making a difference in their industries. From sustainable banking to eco-friendly beauty, these businesses are changing the game.

Credit: Interface, Inc. 


Triodos

What if.... the money in your bank account contributed to a better world? 

Founded in the Netherlands in 1980, and now operating in UK, Belgium, Spain and Germany, Triodos Bank's purpose/mission is to make money work for positive change. Their belief is that 'your money has power': banking can be a powerful force for good, serving individuals and communities while building a stronger, more sustainable society. 


How does Triodos put its purpose into action? Firstly, it will only lend depositors' money to organisations that are making a positive impact on the planet and its people. Triodos has made £9.4 billion in loans to projects across Europe benefitting people and planet -  focusing on the strategic themes of energy and climate, food and agriculture, and social inclusion.


Triodos publishes details of the organisations it finances on its website, so you can see exactly how your money is being used. 


Triodos is fully committed to the Paris climate agreement, and plays a leading role in carbon accounting for the banking sector. It helped to develop the Partnership for Carbon Accounting Financials (PCAF), and has committed to a Science-Based Target for its own carbon impacts and those of all its loans and investments.


Triodos also offers a range of impact investment opportunities to its customer base. To date, the bank has raised more than £187 million in social investments for 50 individual organisations.

As with other companies in this list, Triodos looks after the details.  Their debit card is made from renewable resources like plant leaves and corn, and is biodegradable.


Ethique

What if.... our bathrooms were free of plastic?

In 2012, New Zealander and 'eco-warrior chemist' Brianne West founded beauty brand Ethique. We've had eco beauty brands ever since Anita Roddick founded The Body Shop (so sad it's now gone from the UK), but what's impressive about Ethique is how comprehensively Brianne and team have worked to make their products work for people and planet. 


With a mission to set new standards for responsible business, Ethique has created an entirely plastic-free solid-product range of soaps, shampoos, conditioners, lip balm, deodorants and more.  They are certified palm oil-free, vegan and cruelty-free and packaged in certified compostable packaging. Ethique donates 2% of all sales to charitable causes and in partnership with Ecologi, plants a tree for every online order. 


Now available in UK and North America as well as Australia and New Zealand, Ethique's measurable impact is building. A "Best for the World" B Corp honoree, Ethique has saved 32+ million plastic bottles from being needed, and 19+ million litres of water; has planted 620,000 trees; and has avoided 6,000+ tonnes of CO2 (Ethique data). 


Wholegrain Digital

What if... we could 'green' the web, one website at a time?

Back in 2015, the Wholegrain Digital team occupied the next door table at Westminster's Impact Hub. I was fortunate to get to know Tom and Vineeta Greenwood, whose purposeful business has deservedly gone from strength to strength. 


If the internet was a country, it would be the world's sixth biggest polluter.  Wholegrain Digital's mission is to 'create the best websites in the world, use our business as a force for good, and help to accelerate the shift to an Internet that’s good for people and planet'. They have become world leaders in greening the web. 


They decided early on to focus on WordPress, working for positive businesses, the public sector and charities. Recent clients have included BBC Good Food, Women4Climate, and Greenhouse Sports, a London-based sports charity. 


Wholegrain's measurable goals relate to Scope 1/2/3 CO2 emissions, CO2/web page, and web hosting powered by renewable sources. Tom and Vineeta created the world’s first website carbon calculator and were lead authors of the Sustainable Web Manifesto. In line with their values, Wholegrain has a 'no fly' policy and staff use second hand computers.

 

They also deeply care about the people side of running a purposeful agency. Wholegrain is a living wage employer and has a maximum wage ratio of 3.  Staff are given rewards for using renewable energy at home, and additional travel time is given to team members who choose sustainable travel options for their holidays. 


7 Purpose-led Companies: This article was first published on LinkedIn in Feb 2024.


 

Will Gardner Organisational Purpose & Sustainability Consultant

About the Author


Will Gardner helps leaders to achieve positive change in their organisations and in the world, by unlocking the full potential of their people through Strategy, Team Coaching and Change Leadership.


Will is based near London, but supports organisations worldwide.



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