Purpose during and after crisis - assessing the role of business

As the world faces the twin crises of coronavirus and climate change, now more than ever businesses need to reset their relationship with the societies they serve.

These challenges cannot be tackled by Governments alone.  Only with long term, collective effort will we be able to provide profitable solutions to the problems of people and the planet.

I spoke this week at the British Academy’s Future of the Corporation Purpose summit. The project blends academic research with insight from business and policy leaders to review the role business plays in society.

We’re firm supporters of its mission to reshape the nature of corporations in the long term and have been closely involved in its work on corporate purpose.

The question posed for my panel event was: ‘Shifting the dial on purposeful business: what can we learn from crises, past and present, in solving the problems of people and planet?’

I was in illustrious company, speaking alongside Mark Carney, UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance, Dan Labbad, Chief Executive of the Crown Estate, Darren Jones MP, Chair of the BEIS Select Committee, and Professor Ngaire Woods, Professor of Global Economic Governance at Oxford University. In particular, I was delighted that Mark praised SSE for “putting its money where its mouth is” when it comes to investing in major low-carbon construction projects to support net zero and spur a green economic recovery. Our commitment to setting comprehensive carbon based targets aligned to the Paris Agreement also got the seal of approval.

Our purpose – to provide energy people need today while building a better world of energy for tomorrow  – gave SSE a very clear focus when the coronavirus crisis struck. Keeping power flowing through our networks and from our power stations was a crystal-clear objective.

We did what was necessary to keep our people and our customers safe, working together with our staff, our partners, communities, customers and supply chain.

We supported our employees who were juggling their dedication to their jobs with the pressures of family responsibilities, we worked together with our suppliers behind the scenes and we looked at what immediate help we could provide those facing the most hardship or in the most vulnerable positions in our communities.

And while this pressing and immediate focus was much-needed, our purpose as a company also guides us to focus on tomorrow. So we have remained acutely aware of the ongoing climate emergency, which was the unsolved crisis dominating the headlines before coronavirus struck.

That’s why, we, as a company and a country, need a similar laser-like focus on a green recovery.

We recently published our ‘Greenprint’, a set of 15 practical proposals for government on steps they can take now to invigorate the green economy.

And we backed that up with two huge projects confirmed in the last two weeks: the £3bn Seagreen Offshore Wind Farm – which will be Scotland’s largest – and the £580m Viking Onshore Wind Farm on Shetland – which will be the largest onshore windfarm in the UK.

We plan to make over £7bn of investment in the UK and Ireland across the next five years – that’s £4m to be spent every single day to aid the low-carbon transition.

The clarity of our purpose – combined with our vision of being a leading energy company in a net zero world – focuses the Board, executive team and the organisation as a whole.

And what we know now more than ever, is that when that purpose aligns with society’s objectives then the impact has the potential to be very powerful not just through a crisis, but for the long-term.