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The private sector has long been seen to play a critical role in addressing the challenges of the Anthropocene and providing potential solutions to address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) through techniques such as sustainability reporting. Recently, a myriad of intermediaries, initiatives and organisations are emerging that aim to drive wider systems change by advocating and advising the private sector to reconsider and broaden their fundamental ‘raison d’être’. In this project, we conceptualise this emerging network as the “Purpose Ecosystem”.

A Purpose Ecosystem creates favourable framings, incentives, systems and infrastructures to support the development of purpose-driven businesses that fundamentally integrate social and environmental objectives into organisational purpose; connects and brings together purpose-driven actors from multiple areas; and, educates new and potential businesses to be social and environmental innovators or ‘’change-makers’’.

Specifically, in this project we explore which roles the emerging Purpose Ecosystem plays in Earth System Governance, and specifically in endorsing and accelerating action aligned with achieving the UN SDGs. We also highlight a number of risks, barriers and caveats to be considered in their overall assessment and propose important questions for further research.

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Methodologically the project engages with purpose ecosystem actors in Australia and the UK through semi-structured interviews and two transdisciplinary workshops in Melbourne and Warwick. The project aims to publish its results in a high-level journal, provide feedback to its stakeholder community, and identify opportunities for future funding.

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The aim of this research project was to explore the role and agency of the ‘purpose ecosystem’ in contributing to Earth System Governance.

Specifically, we examined if, and how, this emerging purpose ecosystem could represent an innovative form of private governance to help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Based on in-depth interviews with 12 Australian organisations and 6 based in the UK we explored open-ended questions on: the definition of purpose; organisations’ respective theory of change; interactions among the purpose ecosystem intermediaries; barriers and challenges towards achieving progress; and, how the organisations address or contribute to the UN SDGs.

Key findings from both the Australian and the UK organisations include:

  • Organisations employ a variety of definitions for purpose which all relate to supporting the achievement of business outcomes beyond profit.
  • Organisations also use a variety of different engagement methods that often target key decision makers through theories of change based on awareness raising, education and individual support as well as new financial and organisational tools.
  • Interactions among actors in the purpose ecosystem are characterised by mutual respect and recognition, but also a growing realisation that there is a significant degree of inefficiency and a need for some form of consolidation.
  • Lack of funding and other resources are key barriers towards achieving greater progress and impact. Other challenges include persistent norms and habits among businesses as well as a need for greater coordination among the organisations in the purpose ecosystem.
  • All organisations share an explicit awareness of the UN SDGs as a clear, comprehensive and useful framework within which to locate their efforts. While actors pursue different strategies and theories of change, their work directly supports the achievement of the UN SDGs through partnership with business.

Based on our preliminary research insights we provide some recommendations:

  1. More rigorous mapping of members in this purpose ecosystem to establish a better understanding of the different actors and their respective efforts;
  2. Creation of a community of practice or some other neutral forum where approaches and ideas can be discussed and coordinated;
  3. Research to identify and evaluate the different theories of change implemented to strengthen the evidence base for impact; and,
  4. Development of a platform that bundles and advertises different funding sources and opportunities for actors within this purpose ecosystem.

In conclusion, we believe this emerging purpose ecosystem could play a vital role in helping address sustainability challenges and support the achievement of the UN SDGs. To reach its full potential, however, a number of barriers and challenges need to be addressed through critical evaluation, greater collaboration and information sharing.

We invite practitioners and academics to provide us with feedback on these findings and join us in better understanding and supporting the evolution of the purpose ecosystem.

You can download the full project report here.

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Monash University:

Associate Professor Wendy Stubbs, School of Social Sciences

Associate Professor Megan Farrelly, School of Social Sciences

Professor Rob Raven, Monash Sustainable Development Institute

University of Warwick

Associate Professor Fred Dahlmann, Warwick Business School

Professor Dave Griggs, Institute of Global Sustainable Development

Professor João Porto De Albuquerque, Institute of Global Sustainable Development

Dr Keith Hyams, Social Sciences (Politics and International Development)

University of Technology, Sydney:

Dr Melissa Edwards, UTS Business School

Associated Analytical Problems

Architecture & Agency