The Push for Purpose

Before you get stuck in, I want to you to ask you a question. ‘Does your job have any real meaning?’

By: Nicola Robey,   5 minutes

You know that thing you get up to do five days or more a week? The thing you leave your family members, friends, and loved ones for. Do you ever wonder whether the world would be any worse off if you were to stop doing that job today?

In a startling admission, over 37% of people in the UK told a YouGov survey in 2017 that they didn’t think their job made a ‘meaningful contribution to the world’, while a further 13% were simply undecided on the matter. That’s exactly half of the people working in the UK, exchanging their valuable time for a job they don’t believe makes any difference to anybody. No one. Wow.

Of course, even the most meaningless of jobs come with the pay off (excuse me) of putting food on the table and a roof over one’s head; but David Graeber, author of viral article ‘Bullshit Jobs’  argued that the psychological effect of spending our days on tasks we secretly believe don’t need to be performed is profoundly damaging. He dubbed it, ‘a scar across our collective soul’.

Sorry to start off on a bleak note, but stick with me, it’s going to get better.

The pushback to the profusion of meaninglessness jobs is perhaps why a groundswell of people has been gravitating – both as employees and consumers – towards companies that put purpose above profit. These are enterprises that profess to progress positive outcomes in the world and for its inhabitants, rather than draining them of their resources while pound signs flash in their eyes.


The purpose paradox

The bottom line is that all businesses have an interest in increasing, well, their bottom line. While money and meaning can often seem like a paradox in our broken and material-focused capitalist society, for many in the movement towards supporting more purpose-led businesses, it doesn’t have to be.

Matt Hocking from conscious design agency Leap is keen to stress that the distinction between the two needn’t be jarring, “For me it’s so fluidly natural. Why would businesses not want to help people and the planet and just make money with no consideration to anyone but the buck. The discerning, curious consumer has the power to change.”

It’s why business owners like Hocking have decided to pursue the stamp of approval that comes with B Corp status; a certification given to businesses that ‘meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose.’

In short, businesses used as a force for good, as opposed to more traditional Scrooge McDuck-style models. With names such as Innocent, Patagonia and Ella’s Kitchen on the B Corp books, and with more companies stepping up to the challenge of achieving its certification everyday, it shows that purpose-led business may not just be a flash in the pan, but rather a legitimate force for change.

And for companies like Leap, being purpose-led not only allows Hocking and his employees to feel like they’re making a veritable change in the world – from the way he considers each project’s carbon footprint, to where he sources his paper – it also means that their business is flourishing in the right way. “When you look after your people, you look after the environment and you show that you’re dedicated to a belief system that runs in harmony, money will naturally come, because the people that believe in that business will naturally come.”

Hitching up to the bandwagon

But, if we were to don our cynical hat for a moment, could pushing the purpose message be appropriated by businesses as a response to a consumer trend? A savvy business move to gain a bigger bank balance without the genuine moral fibre to back it up? Of course it could. But, like hollow claims of authenticity, consumers can often see through the falsities more easily than peering through a £1 Primark bed sheet. Take for example Starbucks, which shouts loud about its eco-consciousness while only paying 2.8% in corporation tax. Who do they think they’re fooling?

Or the curious case of 24-year-old Instagram influencer Scarlett Dixon, who tottered into a wolf pit of internet scorn with her ill-fated Listerine brand partnership. After posting an ‘I woke up like this’ style image in her bedroom, featuring fajita wraps masquerading as a stack of pancakes, bunches of red balloons, and a full face of slap, (with Listerine bottle placed on the bedside table in prime position), the ruse backfired disastrously, and the cumulative preposterousness catapulted it viral. Listerine swiftly became the latest brand exposing not only its role in the farcity of influencer marketing, but how just damaging false authenticity can be.

“The idea and drive to be a purpose-led business, with authenticity, comes from the founder,” says Chris Sharpe founder of Kinsu, an app-based insurance business that’s trying to correct what he sees as a fraught relationship between the industry and customers. He clearly likes a challenge.

“A lot of people pay lip service to it, but you don’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to see if it’s not coming from the centre of the organisation and it’s purely marketing. Customers can smell it a mile off.”


Make it mean something

Of course, meaning and purpose are both subjective terms. But that’s where rigorous business accreditations like B Corp come in to play. Companies are individually scored across 80 impact areas such as environment, community, and employee wellbeing – and the scores are all available to see for anyone who might be interested. You have to score higher than 80, or there’s no B Corp cigar. This rigorous testing means that the purpose playing field is more levelled, making it less of an industry buzzword or wafty concept, and more of the real deal.

So, back to that meaning question, if you’re still undecided as to whether you’re one of the 50% whose job might not mean anything, I present to you four ways in which we might get some clarity; as defined by The School of Life founder, psychoanalyst Alain de Botton:

Firstly does your job help others? Do you do something useful for people. From serving a coffee to open heart surgery, we often think it’s better to be served, but in fact the opposite gives life way more purpose.

Secondly, do you make something better? “We’re all anxious, imperfect messes, so there’s meaning in creating something superior,” de Botton says. He gives the examples of creating a book that captures complex emotions, portraying them in a way we normally can’t in our day to day, or making a garden prettier so we can see nature abound.

Thirdly, do you discover how stuff works? Whether it’s finding out something new, or looking beyond what’s right in front of you, delving deeper into the world’s mysteries can provide our lives with greater clarity and meaning.

And finally, do you make proper connections with others? By this de Botton means the opposite of superficial chat around the watercooler. Instead, do you make real, honest connections with others that benefit you both?

If your day job can even begin the scratch the surface of any of these de Botton bullets, then I’d say that’s a day’s work worth getting out of bed for. Just leave the Listerine in the bathroom where it belongs.


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