Once you see, you can’t unsee,” was apparently a beloved phrase of one of my heroes – the sadly departed Ray C. Anderson, founder of Interface and one of the great pioneers of sustainable business.

If you’re reading this as one who ‘sees’, whatever your own personal epiphany about sustainability, I’ll warrant you’ve never looked at the world in quite the same way since. But it can be very easy to forget/ignore how we saw the world before our own paradigm shifted, and to judge others who haven’t yet experienced it. Even when our beliefs change, we have an amazing capacity as humans to convince ourselves that we’ve held them all along.

We should instead also make a point of exploring different ways to put the case for sustainability to the sceptical congregation – starting with the (possibly heretical) assertion that it’s got nothing to do with being green.

When we allow sustainability to be defined largely or exclusively in terms of the word ‘green‘, we cut off the blood supply to a much broader and richer narrative.

In its original and broadest sense, sustainability is about longevity – the capacity to survive and prosper over generations. Framing it as such provides much more fertile territory for meaningful discussion with sceptical business leaders, because it poses infinitely bigger and more relevant questions (to them) about fundamental long-term business viability.

Business must now operate within a completely different set of conditions, encompassing the combined forces not only of climate change, population growth and diminishing natural resources, but also (among others) the ascent of Generation Y and increased public scrutiny in the wake of the financial crisis.

To achieve longevity, they will need to recognise these seismic shifts and re-imagine them, not as constraints on business as usual, but as the perfect opportunity to reconnect with disillusioned customers and employees by designing something better. It’s worth noting the words with which Unilever chief executive Paul Polman launched their Sustainable Living Plan, “not as a project to celebrate, but a new business model to implement.”

Those that ‘see’ understand that sustainability isn’t a discrete agenda. It’s a cultural thing – a perspective on core business strategy that inextricably links long-term success with serving a higher social purpose.

It is probably unlikely that most business leaders would turn to a creative agency to advise their business on corporate strategy. But maybe they should.

That’s because, more than ever before, the business that wants to achieve long-term success must earth itself in a sure sense of why it exists, what it stands for, and why it matters. And that purpose should be self-evident in the very products and services it provides, how it organises itself, and how it conducts its daily business – this is strategic branding.

Brand is what ultimately connects the success stories behind companies as diverse as young upstarts, like Innocent and Icebreaker, to established giants, like Interface, Unilever and Marks & Spencer.

In their own ways, what all these organisations have done is to put an enduring sense of purpose at the heart of their core business strategy – a reason for being that unites the beliefs of people inside the business with the fundamental human values of the people the business serves.

Why do you exist (beyond making money for shareholders)? Why should people choose to buy from you? Why should they drag themselves out of bed in the morning to come and work for you? If you ceased to exist tomorrow, why should anyone miss you?

In a world of increasingly rapid change, only authentic and compelling answers to these kinds of questions provide the means to achieve long-term success. Business models will inevitably come and go. What can and should unite them all, however, is an overarching preoccupation with delivering what Umair Haque refers to as thicker value – the reconnection of business strategy to social progress.

If the idea of entrusting corporate strategy to a bunch of creative types puts the fear of god into you – rest assured that this whole thesis is grounded in long-established (though apparently also long-forgotten) principles of successful strategy formulation.

Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke defined strategy in 1871 as “a system of expedients … the evolution of an original guiding idea under constantly changing circumstances.” It seems tailor-made for these times.

So the question isn’t whether you can afford to use the creative experts to find your purpose, it’s whether you can afford not to. Like it or not, purpose is the beating heart of your business.

And if you can’t feel its pulse, then your business may find itself heading for the morgue.

@danmgray is a visiting fellow of the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability and author of Live Long and Prosper: The 55-Minute Guide to Building Sustainable Brands

Source: The Guardian