The Future of Sustainability Is Personal | Net Impact

The Future of Sustainability Is Personal

This post is part of our Voices series, featuring Net Impact leaders around the world who are making a difference on their campuses and in their careers. They’re sharing their insights and their inspirations, in their own words.  

Ten members from my Net Impact London Professional Chapter were invited to participate in the Future for Sustainability Summit to share our views as next generation leaders. Held in London, it was a refreshing opportunity to engage with a diverse group of speakers – men and women of all ages, from different fields, and with different backgrounds.

My main take away from this very full day was the confirmation that sustainability in business is something that has a very personal resonance. Yes, achieving long-term impact requires key structural aspects such as scale and profit, but business sustainability is just as much reliant on personal approaches, thinking, and values.

Millennials: more a mindset than a specific age group

“Millennials” were one of the hot topics of the summit. According to a new research report launched at the event by CCE and Financial Times in partnership with Cranfield School of Management and Net Impact, there are stark differences between future and current business leaders in their expectations towards business’ social purpose.

As a millennial, I got to thinking about the discussions. What I landed on was that being a millennial is less about belonging to a specific age group; it is more about your mindset as well as your sense of responsibility and ownership.

The discussion around workplace readiness listed some characteristic millennial attributes  and attitudes. They included: an acute sense of responsibility (in a digital information era where there is “no excuse for not knowing”), questioning the status quo (regardless of authority structures), thinking outside the box, being solutions driven, and working with whatever is on hand. Several panellists noted that while millennials naturally share, older, more established generations tend to think in terms of clearly delineated responsibilities and authority – and might feel threatened by this more open and more challenging attitude.

I found the question around a different sense of ownership particularly interesting. While I can’t speak on behalf of everyone embarking on an impact career, I believe that many of us are looking for ways to invest our skills and intelligence to contribute to something bigger because we feel genuinely connected to the world around us. We often see work as an opportunity to fulfil a purpose rather than just a way to pay the bills.

Of course having the responsibility for a particular piece of work is key to achieving consistency and quality, as well as a massive motivational factor. And yet, a natural part of the process towards real success is sharing knowledge with unlikely allies and identifying overlaps and synergies in our work, to come up with more holistic solutions to today’s challenges. Along the same lines, rather than feeling that we need to become experts in order to do well, new leaders like me are choosing to work with those who have the skills and experience that we might be missing to help deliver a project.

This is why networks such as Net Impact are so powerful. They harness people’s enthusiasm and energy by creating the space to connect, share, learn, and evolve.

Purpose Drives the Sustainability Engine

Much of the discussion at the summit revolved around the social purpose of business. According to the research, a vast majority of current leaders believe business should and does have a social purpose. And yet, while future leaders agree business should have a social purpose, only 20% believe business today does.

I personally share the view that only a minority of businesses already have a social purpose because many are still working in a more linear, output-oriented mindset. They accumulate profit, and only then do they think about how they are spending it. Whereas, if social purpose is at the centre of everything you do, success in business becomes very much about how you make the profit in the first place. That encompasses processes – supply chain monitoring, carbon footprint, etc. – but also the final product, which begs the question, does an arms or a tobacco manufacturer really have a social purpose? 

I think of business as a social animal with a wide network of customers, employees, suppliers, and others. It is nonsensical to consider business as separate from society. Business’ leverage is therefore huge. However, for business to inspire and drive positive change, it will need to inspire its workforce.

I couldn’t help but think about why I get out of bed in the morning. I spend eight (or more) hours a day at work because of a sense of purpose. For me, work is more than a paycheck. It’s a an opportunity to invest myself in the issues that are important to me, like using my work to help vulnerable young people stand on their own two feet through skills development and facilitating effective collaboration between the business, government, and nonprofit sectors. Regardless of whether you are an intern or the CEO, the need for purpose remains the same. This is why sustainability as a movement and the millennial mindset have the potential to fundamentally change the way business is done.

Emili Budell is the Program Coordinator at International Tourism Partnership. She holds a BA in Political Science from Sciences Po Paris and a MA in Migration Studies from the University of Sussex where she focused on refugee issues.  She is a Net Impact London Professional Chapter Leader and a trustee of the Chiapas Children’s Project.