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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


26 November 2020 – A new report from the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) captures insights from leading companies to highlight practices to integrate a sustainable purpose into organisations.

Leading with a sustainable purpose: Leaders’ insights for the development, alignment and integration of a sustainable corporate purpose has been designed to support leaders wanting to bring their business model in line with a sustainable purpose. The report outlines 10 core principles that together aim to act as the ingredients for integration of strategy, sustainability and purpose.

Capturing learnings from leaders within four large multinational companies - DSM, Ingka Group (IKEA), Interface and Unilever - the focus of the principles is less on the why and what of the purpose debate and more about how to embed it across the business.

The 10 principles, drawn from discussions with these leaders and CISL’s 30 years of sustainability experience, are set out in three parts recommending businesses: align purpose, strategy and sustainability; integrate practices across the core business; and communicate and engage externally.

Director of Business Strategy, CISL, and author of the report, Ben Kellard said:

“There has been a lot of debate about corporate purpose, but less about how it’s done.  We have sought to capture how leaders have especially aligned corporate purpose with a transition to a sustainable economy.”

The report explores the different ways the principles have been successfully achieved by participating businesses.  Some of these practices will be new to conventional organisations, while others adapt familiar practices in new ways. The report suggests a business is unlikely to use all practices, but will be able to select, combine and adapt a bespoke selection that best fit the organisational size, culture and context. 

Rebecca Marmot, Chief Sustainability Officer, Unilever, said:

“I’m pleased to share Unilever’s experience in this report that reinforces the essential nature of the multi-stakeholder model and demonstrates the imperative to embed sustainability through the entire business and supply chain.”

Jeff Turner, VP Sustainability, DSM said:

“The path to purpose is never straightforward. The important thing is to never lose sight of the ultimate goal. You simply cannot wait for a universal consensus before moving forward with a complex initiative like this. In fact, the very act of moving forward is often what helps to bring everything into focus and, ultimately, resolution.”

Pia Heidenmark Cook, Chief Sustainability Officer, Ingka Group (IKEA) said:

“To create positive, substantial and required impact on climate, companies need to act together. I hope that this guide will inspire more companies to embark on a journey to puts purpose at the core of the business.”

Inge Massen, Global Director Purpose, Brand & Employee Communications, DSM said:

“A company’s purpose needs to be based on a fundamental truth – this entails looking into the very soul of the company and trying to extract the essence of why you exist.  It’s about standing up for what you believe in, not about standing out.”

Erin Meezan, Vice President and Chief Sustainability Officer, Interface said:

“As more and more businesses commit to a purpose-led approach, there is a growing need for roadmaps and guides that help companies understand the right tactics and processes to adopt when integrating purpose into business strategy. Once purpose can be incorporated into innovation and product priorities, then a business really benefits and can inspire change among others. We’ve seen this firsthand at Interface during our sustainability journey.”

The report’s key principles recommend businesses:

  • Take an ‘outside-in’ view that engages external stakeholders 
  • Take an ‘inside-out’ view that engages employees 
  • Engage the Board to align purpose and strategy and broaden ownership
  • Integrate the purpose into strategies and objective-setting
  • Align rewards and incentives
  • Integrate the purpose into core business practices
  • Build the capacity and capability of employees 
  • Select and build external partnerships and advocacy 
  • Integrate the purpose into metrics and external disclosure  
  • Integrate the purpose into corporate positioning and communications strategy 


Read the report here and find out more about CISL's Centre for Business Transformation.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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