The Sustainability Series: Purpose past, present, future

As consumer demand for sustainable, ethically-sourced products heightens, here at WGSN we’re dedicated to highlighting the opportunities this challenge presents across the board.

A shift towards sustainability comes not just from an environmental need, but a financial one too, as consumers begin to reject brands and businesses that aren’t on board. 

We’ll profile the brands who are leading by example, talk to expert industry insiders and bring you all the latest innovations, helping you to bring sustainability into the 21st century. 

For more insight and inspiration, head to the sustainability section on WGSN.


For the third in the series, we hear from Brook Calverley, co-founder of brand culture agency People-Made, on the past, present and future of purpose.


Purpose, past


When leisurewear brand Patagonia finally cracked the formula for a plastic-free wetsuit, they did something extraordinary….

Founded on a passion for climbing and surfing, Patagonia had been built from the start with an absolute commitment to reducing environmental impact. The business had long sought to create wetsuits that didn’t use neoprene – a material manufactured with non-degradable plastics.

This wasn’t the first such project. Patagonia has a history of making big calls that demonstrate a deep-seated sense of purpose: ‘using business to inspire solutions to the environmental crisis’. The Common Threads initiative with eBay, for instance, which helps people recycle and reuse Patagonia garments is another great example.

Such purpose-led businesses used to be rare. Along with brands like The Body Shop and Virgin, they were at the forefront of a movement, emerging out of the mid-70’s to early 80’s, that saw business as a means to a greater end – something beyond simply the pursuit of profit.

Purposeful business, however, is no longer the niche it was. When an everyday brand of washing detergent claims to have purpose at its heart (Persil, in case you wondered, exists to help kids spend more time outdoors) you know the idea has gone mainstream.


Purpose, present


The business logic for purpose is pretty compelling.

We know that employees want to work for purposeful businesses and consumers would rather buy from them, too. Purpose allows businesses to converse on a more human level, offers greater meaning and contribution to society, and, providing consumers see evidence of you acting on it, purpose seems to drive trust and affinity too.

It’s hardly surprising that some of the world’s biggest brands have been enthusiastic adopters.

And, like the pioneers before them (who took an activist stance around really big, lofty ideas), they haven’t been shy of ambition. You can see it in statements like ‘to nurture the human spirit’ (Starbucks), ‘delivering happiness’ (Zappos) and ‘inspiring optimism’ (Coca-Cola).

However there’s a big and important difference between old and new. Where the original purpose brands grew from the ground up with these beliefs at their core, some more recent adopters have bolted them on as an ‘add-on’–  a move that poses questions about their credibility.

And, as more and more jump in, it’s possible we’ll reach ‘peak purpose’ – the point at which credibility snaps and customers start to actively question and reject such big claims….

We already see evidence of this in in our own studies at People Made. Right now consumers don’t pay a lot of attention to this stuff. But as more brands make more noise about it, and their customers become more aware of it, we predict trouble.

Because we find that most people don’t in fact think Coca-Cola exists to inspire optimism. They believe Coca-Cola exist to sell lots of Coca-Cola.

This dissonance, between what brands say they care about and what people think they really care about, could be the death of purpose.

Consumers don’t respond to empty spin. Insincere purpose is not just ineffective, but actively repellent. It shouldn’t need saying, but if purpose is to mean anything you’ve got to genuinely believe it, back it, act on it at a fundamental level.

This goes way beyond campaigns that do little more than signal virtue – it requires purpose to be totally integrated into the business model; guiding decision-making and strategic direction that might not always lead to easy outcomes but which always truly reflect your beliefs.


So, where is purpose heading and how do we see it evolving?


We see three approaches emerging:

Firstly, we predict the emergence of anti-purpose. Some brands will explicitly reject big aspirations and make a virtue out a simple focus on great product. Ironically, the honesty and authenticity of this approach may well do a better job of fostering connection than attempts to stand for something bigger.

The second approach takes purpose but finds something that’s closer and intimate, that’s more grounded and approachable. My favourite example comes from Debenhams. Their business turn-around pivots around something so accessible and heartfelt – they just want to make shopping sociable and fun again.

A purpose consumers can feel and relate to on a more personal scale has potential to become particularly powerful and meaningful – they’re also easily actionable for a wide scope of brands, from established ones to brand new start-ups.

The final route? If you want to go big, you’ve got to commit– go with something that leadership genuinely believe in – and are happy to make trade-offs in order to pursue.

It’s through your sacrifice that consumers will know you’re authentic. It’s why people love Patagonia so much. Let me finish the story about their innovative new wetsuit –

What they should have done (and typically, what businesses usually do), is protect their innovation, patent the IP, gain advantage in the market or generate royalties from others who want to license the material.

What they actually did, was open-source it. They allowed other manufacturers to use their innovation for free. Because they truly want less plastic in the world and enabling others to produce wetsuits without neoprene was the best way to do it.

That’s the kind of commitment you can’t fake.



Brook Calverley is co-founder of People-Made, a brand culture agency that helps brands do what they say. 


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