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Improving sustainability through Purpose Ecosystems in business

Changing ideas about organisational purpose

Sustainability reporting is one of the main techniques the private sector uses to account for its obligations to achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDG). Recently new initiatives and organisations have emerged to help improve sustainability outcomes by advising the private sector to broaden the fundamental purpose of business.

This Purpose Ecosystem seeks to create positive incentives, infrastructures and framing for developing purpose-driven businesses. The purpose of business here is defined as integrating social and environmental objectives, connecting people from multiple areas, and educating businesses to be ‘change-makers’, all with the aim of potentially improving the governance of earth systems.

Piloting research

In 2019, Associate Professors Fred Dahlmann and Wendy Stubbs established a pilot project to explore which roles members of the Purpose Ecosystem play in accelerating actions aligned with achieving UNSDGs. They have collected and analysed primary data, visited each other’s Universities to expand their networks, taught on the Alliance virtual module and published several research articles.

The Catalyst Fund

The Monash Warwick Alliance Catalyst fund was an ideal opportunity to pump prime the research pilot project. Funding allowed them to connect with a much wider network of researchers at Monash and Warwick universities and to strengthen collaboration in the field of sustainability. They also also managed to establish good connections with industry partners whose work closely aligned with our aims.

Interviews with business

Based on in-depth interviews with 12 Australian organisations in the purpose ecosystem and six based in the UK, their interviews explored open-ended questions. These interviews considered organisations’ definition of purpose; respective theory of change; interactions among the purpose ecosystem members; barriers and challenges towards achieving progress; and, how the organisations address or contribute to the UNSDGs.

Developing purpose ecosystems

Findings suggested that members of the purpose ecosystem all use different approaches for changing the purpose of business towards achieving outcomes beyond profit. They often target key decision makers in the private sector by raising awareness, providing education and individual support, as well as offering new financial and organisational tools. However, together with old habits, lack of resources is a barrier to progress and impact. Recommendations included rigorous mapping of the purpose ecosystem; developing a platform of different funding sources; creation of a community of practice; research into the impact of theories of change.

“The significant ecological and social challenges of the 21st century require significant changes to the way in which businesses define the purpose of their existence. Companies must develop new mindsets, strategies and business models designed to address these sustainability challenges as the primary purpose of their existence. A growing network of purpose ecosystem actors is trying to help companies achieve such a broader transformation.” - Associate Professor Fred Dahlmann

Next steps

Given the scale and urgency of many of these complex issues, working together with researchers at Monash provides the ideal launchpad for research with global impact. The next step for Fred and Wendy is to build on their initial findings and apply for larger external grant funding. The aim is to extend their pilot with a more comprehensive research proposal designed to better understand the processes needed to support the development of purpose-driven businesses. Such organisations could play an important role in helping to achieve the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Read recent publication

Principal Applicants

Associate Professor Frederik Dahlmann

Frederik Dahlmann originally joined Warwick Business School as Assistant Professor of Global Energy in October 2012. He has a BSc from Loughborough University, and an MSc and a PhD from the University of Bath. He also gained professional experience in the construction sector and from working as an energy analyst in London.


Associate Professor Wendy Stubbs

Wendy Stubbs is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Her research seeks to understand how business can more holistically address its environmental, social and economic responsibilities.


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