Sustainable businesses needs purpose beyond profit

Initiatives of Change Business & Economy 2021

ICBE 2021 square white background

By Michael Smith


Corporations and industries need a purpose beyond profit, says Sunil Mathur, the Managing Director and Chief Executive of Siemens in India and South Asia. ‘Companies’ purposes are critical,’ he explains. They should include a commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); meeting environmental challenges; diversity in the workforce; and ethical values. 


Sunil Mathur ICBE 2021
Sunil Mathur


A moral compass for companies

Mathur was the opening speaker on a panel at the first conference of the Caux Forum Online 2021, marking the 75th anniversary of the Initiatives of Change centre in Switzerland. The two-day business forum, from 12 to 13 July, focused on ‘Corporate governance in the 21st century, responding to systemic crisis’. It was organized by Initiatives of Change Business & Economy, which also convenes monthly meetings on the implications of sustainability for business.  

Mathur heads a £1.2 billion engineering and infrastructure company with a workforce of nearly 10,000 employees. He acknowledged that ‘shareholder expectations are increasingly challenging’, when they clash with the long-term goals of boards of directors.  ‘The stock exchange is ruthless,’ he said.

Companies can only be sustainable if there is a commitment to a higher purpose.

‘Growth is only sustainable if it is valid for all stakeholders,’ Mathur continued. ‘Growth with higher purpose is becoming critical. Companies can only be sustainable if there is a commitment to a higher purpose.' He called for a ‘walk the talk environment’: ‘Does the company live by a moral compass? Does it articulate this to all the employees?’

Siemens now operates, he said, under the acronym DEGREE: 

  • De-carbonization;
  • Ethics – a culture of integrity;
  • Governance;
  • Resources – reducing waste;
  • Equity – inclusivity;     
  • Employability – for all employees.

Siemens, which is based in Germany, weathered a bribery storm in 2006, when a secret fund of $40 to $50 million used to win contracts in African countries was exposed. The board resigned and a new board and CEO were put in place who vowed that ‘only clean business is Siemens business’. The company was so transformed that the Dow Jones has ranked Siemens as the world’s most ethically compliant company.

Mathur admitted there were ethical dilemmas, such as the employment of a child as a tea boy. The child had a right to an education, but might be the only breadwinner in his family.


Isabella Bunn ICBE 2021
Professor Isabella Bunn


Humanity at the centre of corporate practice

Isabella Bunn, a professor of business ethics at Regents Park College, University of Oxford, and member of the governing body of Oxford Analytica, also focused on values and purpose. Companies should have ‘a multi-stakeholder approach’, encompassing environmental and social responsibility, corporate governance and the SDGs. The benefits companies brought to society gave them a ‘social license to operate’, she said. ‘Boards need to establish the company’s values culture’ and ‘designate culture as a corporate asset’.

What is different now about purpose is how to put humanity at the centre of corporate practice.

Bunn, who specializes in ethical aspects of economic law, cited organizations that were advocating purpose beyond profit. They included the Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism; Oxford Analytica; British Academy Future of the Corporation Programme; and the UN Global Compact.

She said that companies should think of purpose in terms of strategy—an ongoing principle for the entire organization. The new emphasis on purpose meant considering ‘how to put humanity at the centre of corporate practice’.


Elise Groulx ICBE 2021
Elise Groulx


Engaging all stakeholders

Human rights lawyer and mediator Elise Groulx Diggs, who is affiliated to Georgetown University, Washington DC, advises corporations on human rights risks in their strategic priorities and supply chains. The need, she said, was to ‘walk the talk in engaging with all stakeholders on human rights’. This included addressing ‘violations of human rights and climate harm’.

Groulx made the distinction between ‘the art of doing good’ promoted by ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ (CSR) and ‘the art of doing no harm’ promoted by  ‘Business and Human Rights’, a new field of legal practice.

She included awareness of ‘the upstream supply chain’ in her stakeholder engagement approach, giving the example of the Rana Plaza tragedy in Dacca, Bangladesh. Over 1,100 garment workers were killed when the building collapsed in April 2013. They had been making clothing for Western fashion houses in a building that had been deemed unsafe after cracks appeared in concrete pillars. Bangladeshi law, Groulx said, had forbidden trade unions which would have protected workers’ rights.

You have to be optimistic that things can change.

She also pointed at failures in social investment by mining companies, from Peru to Australia and Papua New Guinea, where decisions were imposed from 5,000 miles away with neither proper consultation nor engagement at the local level.

Yet, she said, ‘you have to be optimistic’ that things can change. The UN’s Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) involves 800 business and management schools in teaching corporate values and sustainability.

Groulx briefly presented her ‘galaxy of norms’ model for understanding the new legal universe developing globally. In this, hard law meets soft law through five rings of liability: reporting (including the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit); the legal duty of care for employees, suppliers and other stakeholders; voluntary principles and industry standards, contracts and codes of conduct; and soft law (such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the OECD guidelines, the ILO core conventions, the SDGs and the UN Global Compact).


Community of trust

During the online discussion, participants emphasized that potential employees wanted to work for companies that were seen to be ethical, including addressing such issues as climate change.

Mathur appealed for ‘links of trust’ between industry, governments and civil society. He was supported by Northern Irish businessman Peter Brew in appealing for  Initiatives of Change to act ‘as a fulcrum to build trust’ between the business world, governments and civil society. The need was for a ‘safe space’ for dialogue, Bunn said, or as Groulx put it, a ‘community of trust’.




You missed the event? Watch the replay of day 1.



Watch the replay of day 2



You would like to know more about the Caux Forum Online? Discover all our 2021 events.


Featured Story

related stories

Polina and Katya square faces EN

What is the meaning of home?

Amid escalating conflicts worldwide, the arts emerge as a potent force to challenge misconceptions and foster positive perspectives. The pivotal role of artists in creatively raising awareness has nev...

Ignacio India blog

Walking the Talk in Business

On 25 - 28 January, some 60 CEOs and other senior staff came together under Chatham House Rules to share personal experiences on how to balance a sustainable business with integrity and trust. Executi...

Save the date Caux Forum 2024 EN

Caux Forum 2024: Save the Date!

Save the date for the Caux Forum 2024! This summer Caux Initiatives of Change, in partnership with Initiatives of Change International and supported by other civil society networks, UN agencies, phila...

Caux Forum opening square website EN

Filling the gap in global efforts for peace and democracy

The Caux Forum 2023 Opening Ceremony set the tone for the conference with the theme, ‘Strengthening Democracy: The Journey from Trauma to Trust.’. Discover the report and relive the highlights of this...

Tsvetana 13 Sept 2023

Finding purpose and harmony through music and the Caux Palace

In a world filled with diverse cultures and languages, the journey of musician Tsvetana Petrushina is an inspiring tale of how she discovered her purpose. Her remarkable story led her to the Caux Pala...

Save the date 2023 square no date

Caux Forum 2023: Save the Date

We are excited to announce the Caux Forum will be back in Caux next summer! Find out more and save the date! ...

Arpan Yagnik

Arpan Yagnik: Mountains to climb

Arpan Yagnik, a participant of last year's Creative Leadership conference and team member of the IofC Hub 2021, talks to Mary Lean about creativity, fear and vocation. ...

YAP 2021 article square

Young Ambassadors Programme 2021: Learning to listen

When Indonesian law student Agustina Zahrotul Jannah discovered the Young Ambassadors Programme (YAP) on Google she felt both excited and hopeless: excited because she hoped it might give her the skil...

Zero waste square for social media

Sofia Syodorenko: A zero waste lifestyle is a mindful lifestyle

How did Sofia Syodorenko become involved in the zero waste movement, and what does it mean to her? Now Chair of Foundations for Freedom, she is also a representative of the Zero Waste Alliance Ukraine...

Patrick Magee 600x600

‘Where Grieving Begins – Building Bridges after the Brighton Bomb’: a live interview with Patrick Magee

The second in Tools for Changemakers’ series of Stories for Changemakers took place on 25 August 2021, with an interview with Patrick Magee, who planted a bomb at the Grand Hotel, Brighton, in 1984, w...

Summer Academy 2021 screenshot square

Forging a network of problem-solvers to build a secure and sustainable future

The Summer Academy on Climate, Land and Security 2021 brought together 29 participants from 20 countries. From Egypt and Senegal to the United States and Thailand, zoom windows opened for six hours ev...

Salima Mahamoudou 21 July 2021 FDFA workshop CDES 2021

Remaking a world in peril

The Caux Dialogue on Environment and Security (CDES) 2021 ran online from 20 July until 30 July, for the second consecutive year, comprising three open plenaries and seven workshops. This year’s discu...

CL 2021 Hope square

A Journey from Uncertainty to Possibility

2021’s Creative Leadership conference took participants on a six-day journey ‘From Uncertainty to Possibility’. Between 25 to 31 July around 150 online participants living in over 50 countries engaged...

FDFA Baobabcowherd-1 Noah Elhardt through WikiCommons square with logos

A pathway to peace and prosperity in West and Central Africa

In the context of their partnership, Initiatives of Change Switzerland (IofC) and the Peace and Human Rights division of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs organised a webinar on the them...

LPM report 2021 square

Peacemakers in the making

‘I am super happy to have been part of the Learning to be a Peacemaker course – we learned the true colours of Islam!’ wrote 18-year-old high-school graduate Nma Dahir, from Erbil, capital of the Kurd...