The Purpose Conference, Australia’s most anticipated purpose-driven business conference, is set to return for its 2023 edition on the 8th and 9th of November. Held at the iconic Carriageworks in Sydney, this two-day event promises to be a beacon of inspiration and innovation in the realm of sustainability and social impact business. With four pivotal themes and a star-studded lineup of speakers and artists, the Purpose Conference is poised to leave an indelible mark on the global business landscape.
I sat down with the visionary behind the Purpose Conference, Sally Hill, to discuss the event’s origins, the state of ‘purpose’ in Australia, the factors driving this movement, and what excites her most about the upcoming conference.
Sally Hill, a prominent figure in responsible and ethical business in Australia, revealed that her initial foray into this venture began a long time before the initial Purpose conference, “Even though the first Purpose conference was held in 2015, the thinking on it began over 13 years ago when I started working in the environmental and social justice sector. In trying to create change on these outcomes, it became apparent to me that business norms were a huge part of the reason we were fast running out of resources; people were unhappy in their work, or worse, were being exploited. We were in a complete mess on climate change.”
Business plays a massive part in our everyday lives, and we all appreciate the conveniences it brings. But, untethered from human values and natural principles, it can unfortunately cause much damage. This is a symptom of the structures and incentives that are embedded in business, where the first purpose is profit, and unfortunately, the environment and people come second. This realization fueled her determination to challenge the ‘business as usual’ approach.“To me, it was quite obvious we had to change the accepted ‘business as usual’ approach if we had a chance of making our planet liveable into the future, and purpose-driven business – i.e. wholly responsible, sustainable, ethical business model – was the antidote to the status quo,” she noted.
But the big question remained: how do you create, develop, support, and scale models of purpose-driven and regenerative business? From there, the conference came about quite organically as a much-needed platform that she sensed would be welcomed, and would bring together all those players who were interested in being a force for good. Hill’s vision was to gather everyone who wants to drive this shift- from CEOs to disruptive start-ups to investors – and together at Purpose, they would all help turn the ship around.
Hill, a businesswoman herself, acknowledged the growing pressure on companies from various stakeholders, “I am a person in business myself, I understand the pressure and demands companies are under from a whole range of stakeholders including their customers and not least shareholders. But if we can apply our companies’ might, creativity, and capital to this challenge, it is the biggest opportunity we’ll ever see for transformation and true prosperity.”
The idea of pursuing the purpose in business has moved out of the “discretionary” realm. It is now increasingly embedded as a strategic theme, and sometimes a core operating principle, for organizations. Hill believes companies are realizing that if you don’t truly embed a strong purpose and relational responsibility, you’re not grasping the full range of risks your business operates in, from climate and environmental risks to staff retention and consumer sentiment risks.
When a business is serious about purpose and ESG, all these risks are apparent, and the more serious a company is about understanding, measuring, and reporting on purpose, the more it’ll be in a position to move to long-term, sustainable growth models. Hill embraced the opportunity, “A ‘purpose-driven business’ – that is, a business truly oriented and geared towards a positive mission more than profit and cautious of any unintended negative consequences it may cause – is both an incredible opportunity and the inevitable direction our economy must move in. “
Hill attributed the growing traction of the ‘purpose’ movement to clear indicators and mounting pressure from multiple fronts, “The indicators couldn’t be clearer, the businesses which will succeed over the next five to ten years are the ones that will make their profit in a way that is symbiotic with the natural world, and good for the quality of life of all people.”
The pressure for businesses to change comes from many levels: policy level, employees, customers, and other more progressive companies. This upward and downward pressure is because we’re living in a generation that is both impatient for change and willing to turn impatience into action. This isn’t just prevalent in one specific age group; it’s a huge movement of people who are experiencing the effects of extreme weather events caused by climate change and who have had enough of the social inequalities the past decades have brought. The recent federal election in Australia, which saw seven independent candidates overturn decades of traditional voting patterns, is a classic example of these attitudes turning to action.
As she notes, the urgency of the challenges, combined with the opportunities, is propelling the movement forward, “This movement’s impatience is driven by the fact we have solutions to the problems, but many of the solutions aren’t becoming real, scale-able and ‘lived’, quickly enough. There are the obvious things like renewables displacing fossil fuels. Still, a huge amount of quiet innovation is also being done in less obvious areas, such as seagrass and kelp sequestering carbon or food packaging made out of food waste in a truly circular solution. The urgency of the challenges, plus the extraordinary opportunity, is exactly why this movement is experiencing an exponential rise at the moment.”
Hill is particularly excited about the lineup of speakers at the 2023 Purpose Conference. One of the speakers she highlighted is Desiree Fixler, the former Head of ESG at DWS Group, whose story resonates with Hill, “Desiree was formerly the Head of ESG at DWS Group (the asset management arm of Deutsche Bank), and her journey resonates with me. She dared to stand up for what she believed in when she uncovered discrepancies between the company’s public sustainability claims and its behind-the-scenes actions.”
Sophia Hamblin Wang, who is pioneering work in Australia’s circular economy by turning carbon emissions into building materials, also stands out. She won a global pitch competition at COP with her ambitious plan to draw down 1 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2040.
Hill also expressed enthusiasm for Chris Andrew and Paul Girrawah House, co-founders of the Waluwin Foundation, for their innovative concept of “Indigenous-designed finance” and their efforts to empower First Nations communities through regenerative land management.
What gives Hill hope for the future is the immense potential for businesses to be a force for good. “You just need to look for where the opportunities are. Large enterprises have access to capital, brand equity, sway, innovation, and research teams, and often huge communities they directly communicate and work with regularly. SMEs can test, track, and learn very quickly and are often drivers of faster-paced, pioneering solutions. Applying the attributes and strengths of any particular business or team to tackling some of the biggest challenges we face is hugely exciting.”
Despite the optimism, some barriers remain. Hill emphasized the need to overcome entrenched norms and business incentives prioritizing profit over environmental and social well-being. She also stressed the importance of addressing climate change and social inequalities with a sense of urgency and action.
The Purpose Conference 2023 promises to be a gathering of visionaries and innovators who are committed to shaping a sustainable and purpose-driven future. As Sally Hill concludes, the time for change is now, and the opportunities for transformation are boundless.
Want to attend Australia’s most anticipated purpose-driven business conference? 2 Day Tickets are on sale now at Purpose Conference.