BUSINESS
01/22/2016 11:56 am ET

The One Thing Every Modern Company Needs

Hint: It's not about just profits anymore.

Cash no longer rules everything around us. 

To attract top talent in today's marketplace, businesses need to imbue themselves with a sense of purpose, according to Niall Dunne, the chief sustainability officer at the British telecom giant BT Group.

"There is a real shift in the most talented and purpose-led individuals themselves," he told The Huffington Post's Jo Confino on Friday at the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. "For that reason alone -- winning the war for talent -- you have to as an organization be really clear about what you are and what you aren't to be credible."

For a growing number of companies, profit is a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. Kickstarter may profit from its crowdfunding platform, but its mission is to make being an artist more financially feasible. Sure, Tesla Motors sells expensive luxury vehicles, but the company is fighting to wean the world off pollution-spewing combustion engines. Since going public, Facebook has been accused of subliminally exploiting its users, but the firm has changed the way a huge portion of humanity communicates. 

But those companies started out that way. Reconstructing a corporate culture around improving society in some way is almost always a mammoth undertaking.

"We've struggled with jargon," Dunne said. "We've struggled with ways to actually communicate that this really needs to be core, to be successful, to be effective for businesses to solve the world's problems as opposed to create them."

Some of the best success stories so far -- and this is, after all, a nascent movement in the business world -- have been at corporate giants that acquired smaller, progressive companies. 

In 2013, Campbell Soup Company bought Plum Organics -- a baby food startup founded by a punk rocker-turned-dad who couldn't find any mass-market wholesome food for his newborn. Two weeks ago, the soup giant announced that it would introduce new labels on its foods alerting consumers to genetically modified ingredients, and vowed to advocate for federal legislation mandating similar labels across the industry. 

People feared that Unilever -- the corporate giant behind Hellmann's mayonnaise and Dove soap -- would smother the Ben & Jerry's free-spirited ethos when it bought the ice cream company in 2000. Instead, Unilever transformed itself around the culture of sustainability pioneered by its Vermont-based acquisition. 

After L'Oreal purchased The Body Shop -- the environmentalist cosmetic chain that helped ban animal testing in much of Europe -- in 2006, both companies improved their supply chains. Now, The Body Shop is poised to embark on a new, multi-pronged political campaign for environmental issues. 

"By saying this is the purpose of our organization, you not only have an opportunity to integrate it into every other part of the strategy," Dunne said, "you also have an opportunity to engage your people in what their purpose is and try to use that to drive hierarchies and silos out of the organization."

He added that identifying a brand with a mission makes it easier to partner with nonprofits and other organizations, who will be less skeptical of a for-profit company's motive. Essentially, in the eyes of the world, to borrow a line from Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night, it becomes what it pretends to be. 

"We've been talking for a while about the limitations of [corporate social responsibility] and, indeed, philanthropy," Dunne said. "No business, no government, not charity can do this on its own." 

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