Transform your business purpose into a more sustainable and greener one

Published on 2022-01-05


Listen the full podcast or read the article below!

Rob Gierke and Purenessity: a consulting company that helps the process of building brands or their transition to a greener purpose. In the role of judge, there is the youngest generation: they expect companies absolute transparency and to make a significant contribution towards achieving a greater ethical goal.


What is Purenessity 

I’m Robert Gierke, I live in Berlin and Purenessity is my consulting company. Purenessity stands for purpose in business for dignity. It's a little bit of wordplay, but it also harnesses the words pureness and purity, because my deep conviction is that every business should come from a very pure point of view to make life better for the people and for all life on earth. I've been enjoying this journey for the past four years now, and this is called new life because I also had a past life before that. 

Robert Gierke’s path toward sustainability

My life journey began in '77: I was born in East Germany, and for the first 12 years of my life my purpose was to make socialism and communism succeed. And we all know that didn't work out so well; the wall fell in '89 when I was 12 years old. After that, something new started from me and my journey, something where I had to adapt to, to change to. That's not to say that I hadn't been a believer: I believed in these philosophies during my formative years and also my parents were believers and contributors to that system. 
Many things of course we didn't know: I didn't know violence, the surveillance. The word communism comes from community and socialism from social, so I think I had a very social and communal imprint through my first formative years.

After the wall fell, a new world opened up for me: I travelled for the first time to the Western countries: West Germany, England, United Kingdom, Italy, Greece. Then I went to a sports school and I was a football player: a midfielder, playing in the highest league for youth in Germany. I graduated from high school in '96 but I did not go on becoming a football professional. I got a scholarship in the US, so I went to Northern Arizona University and started business there: the exact opposite of what I learnt when I was little, that became a new reality.

Then, I had my first job in Silicon Valley, I partook in the organization of Salt Lake Winter Olympics and got my MBA afterwards.

I meant to stay in the US, but when the first tech bubble crashed in 2002, I couldn't find a company to sponsor my visa. So, destiny led me back to Germany and I started a 14-year career with Adidas. I went through several positions within global marketing there, and I also had a two-year stint in São Paulo where it helped build up a new creative centre to build marketing concepts and products, which was called the Creation Center São Paulo.

And in my last role was a global one: to coordinate several creation centres around the world: in Tokyo, Shanghai, São Paulo, Panama and Portland, Oregon. So I was on the plane a lot, to the degree where sometimes when I woke up I didn't really know where I was.

About 10 years into my career I was asking myself also some serious questions because I had a very intense time with great phases, but also with very hard phases.

And right at that time where the global Sustainable Development Goals were launched, it was an awakening time for me: Why am I here? What am I supposed to do? It took me another three years to leave that golden cage, it was a decision which matured within me: on the one side it was so nice and secure, they paid me well, I had a company car, and then on the other side a voice knocked very loud that said that I could do more and, also if it was uncomfortable, I had to move. That voice became louder and louder and then it was obvious: I left.

I went to Lesbos, Greece to work as a volunteer for three months in one of the biggest refugee camps there. When I was there, there were about 7,000 people and when it burned down last year there were 12,000 people. While I was there I asked myself how it was possible to put 7,000 people in that place that was more like a concentration camp or prison than a refugee camp. It was a very humbling experience for me to work with people who had only their bare lives, that didn't have anything anymore, often not even papers. It was a very contrasting experience from a corporate breath totally spoiled to this very basic experience. It did something with me and definitely set me on the path to also help people, help refugees.

Today with Purenessity a third of my profit goes to the three things which I cherish, which are dear to my heart, and one of them are refugees: a percentage goes to UNHCR to support them because my soul and my heart are invested through that experience. 

Then after this journey, I did a lot of personal growth work and looked into what's my path, what's my quest.

I went to an organization called where I had the opportunity to be trained as a climate leader because climate and the environment were also very dear to my heart.
Since then I give climate talks to educate the world about the climate crisis who has finally gotten the attention it deserves. It should have gotten that attention 20 years ago, but now through the painful experiences which we see all over the world, more people start becoming more interested in it.

B Corp and sustainable businesses

With my skill set and my experiences, I've founded Purenessity to help companies transition from the old business paradigm - which talks about extraction basically, i.e., it's an extractive business model to maximize profits - to transition to something which is much more purpose-driven, which is much more sustainable, and which serves the planet, the people, and yes, also the profit, and still it has a balanced business approach to it.

I'd also transitioned into the B Corp environment, where now I'm a B leader for B Corp or B lab Europe: I help companies get certified with B Corp certificates. In Germany, it's still a quality label for a sustainable company and in other countries like the US, Canada and Italy it's a legal entity format and in Italy, it's called società benefit. 

I put this into my offerings as well, because I believe that Purenessity helps build purpose-driven businesses or do the business model adaptation, based on the 17 SDGs. It's not just the paint job on the outside, which would be greenwashing or whitewashing, but you have to be real. Because Gen Z and the newer generation say zero bullshit all around: they’re very critical, they're very investigative, they want the authentic relation of a company or an entity. And so that goes without saying that you have to do the inner work and then tell the story about it: do great things and talk about it.

The main work is to change the narrative and how to give business leaders permission to act out. Because many business leaders do understand that businesses have to play a different role, but they are stuck in their formative years and old business relationships: there's a lot of anxiety tied to sticking to the profit before acting out.

The B corps have great examples of growth, and for people and the planet, they are also financially more successful than the comparatives in the sectors and to help also business leaders to make that jump. This shift is at the core of what I do. 

For the skill set with Purenessity, the target clients are not big corporate businesses even though I have a couple, it's mainly privately focused on medium-sized businesses because we find a bias for action there. The privately held want to make money, but they also want to leave a positive legacy for the generations to come. And then you find a climate for action, which I'm tapping into, that's very interesting and inspiring. I also take a lot of inspiration from the startup scene. 

If you can infuse medium-sized companies - which by the way are often the global hidden champions, they have from 50 to 10,000 employees and they make multi million revenues, sometimes even billion ends in the industry - they're the backbone of all the economies, not only in Germany but also in Italy and all over Europe. Above 90% of the economy is to medium size businesses. So, we need to take them on this journey, through a consciousness shift to act out for people, the planet and profit.

The step to become a sustainable business

When I work with these companies I use the 17 SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals by the UN, as a projection surface.
That's 17 big items which we have to solve as humanity to create a better and healthier future and life for all life on planet earth.

When I started working I said "okay, every one of you - because the company is made of human beings that holds true for the CEO as well as for the janitor, or for the system - what comes from your heart? What matters to you? You know which of the 17 SDGs resonates most with you?" And then start at that level.

Then I look at whereas the biggest overlap is either at the leadership team if we do bottom-up exercises involving the entire company. You can see where there's the biggest overlap, because there you have the biggest collective energy and people want to make a difference in the world and it could be anything: from no poverty to climate action, to sustainable economies and life on land or on the water, doesn't matter. 

And then the second step I look at the company per se: "in which business area is it operating?" Sometimes there are close links. If you're a publishing company, you'd be producing books or content, and so you're linked to SDG number four: quality education. It's very close, right? But if you make mineral water or natural water for food, then there's also a close link with the water goal.
But that shouldn't be the only determinant. That's why I look at the overlap of what matters to people and what's the nature of the business. Then we decide on a couple of SDGs, which they want to talk about, and obviously, that cannot be 17 because then you spread yourself too thin: I'd say no more than three, because you also want to combine the power behind certain initiatives, knowing that all these 17 SDGs are interrelated anyway. So, you need to apply systems thinking and how do they influence each other collectively and not by doing one extreme thing and then creating another problem somewhere else. I think these projection techniques are also important. 

Then we come to the implementation phase and try to anticipate what it does within the company.

But once we know if they want 1, 2 or 3 SDGs, we think about what does it mean if on along the value chain from input factors - i.e., the resources coming into the company to go up business operations - to the output factors - the monies or the products and services can be dedicated in certain sick lists where it makes a positive impact and you can integrate them in all free parts on areas or in any of them.

So once we identify "where" then it's the concrete "what". We ask the question" what does success look like? " We have to also develop some very concrete key performance indicators. These KPIs are important because they will become part of the standard reporting next to all the financials and operations. You treat them at an equal level, that you can really transition from a just profit or financial income statement, or balance sheet, or cash flow statement, reporting to a real integrated people, planet, profit reporting, which is a sustainable purpose reason company. 

I guide these companies along this journey and the question is "where do you want to make the difference?". The goal number 13 -  climate action - is very pressing and immediate, and you see this is also driven by all these disasters we see around the world and also is very present in the public discourse. I would say climate change is a very hot topic right now, together with gender equality.

I heard of a challenge that companies do: "are you equal on all hierarchical levels? Do people know what people earn and you're transparent about this? Do women and men have the same career opportunity? Well, how do you handle it if a woman gets pregnant? Do they get equal opportunities once they return to work-life?" So: which kind of solutions do you try to find for this? 
Those are the SDG's goals that stand out the most but every other goal is of course equally important, and some companies do great things from finding of them

This is what I would say if you asked me about priorities or how these companies choose to contribute to, that's the technique or the methodology I’m using.

The role of an SDG expert in a company transition

In the past, it was all about competition and superiority, but now there's a collaborative mindset, a co-creation. So, to create something new no one does it alone, and sustainability likewise.

The 17 SDGs are so broad with all the social topics, all the environmental topics, and no one knows it all. There are experts in each and every sub-segment already off each goal. If you want to solve a problem, if you want to serve a client, you have to involve them and integrate them to find the technical solutions. 

For example, circular economy means doing something different for each sector already: you need the experts because it's very technical and you need to dive into the nitty-gritty details. And then you can arrive at the solution if you follow the principles and you get the right experts along: we can only do this together and we need to support each other.

I always look at it as an organism: we need to have a more organic view of how we function as an economy, how we function as a global society.
Basically, we are an organism called society with 8 billion cells and in a healthy organism, each cell consumes and gives exactly to the degree so that the overall organism can thrive. And when it doesn't, if there are cells that maximize to the detriment at the cost of other cells it's cancer that maximizes for the short term and it spreads and then it kills the overall organism. We have cancer right now and we have what it takes to cure ourselves and grow into this collaborative conscious organism called society. 

Collaboration’s difficulties between start-ups and established companies

It has to do with corporate culture, organizational culture, which is very different from a startup than an established company, which has been there for generations where you've got ground structures, a grown culture, certain norms and normative; whereas a startup culture is usually much more explosive, uncertain.
When these two cultures collide, it can create beauty or it can create chaos. It depends on how consciously both sides encounter each other with the knowledge that is it, and that both entities can benefit from it. "What are the good things which we can take from the other part and what can we give also to make the others more successful?" 

“What can we take from startups and infuse them in bigger, new medium-sized companies?” There are good things like iterative prototyping, fast prototyping, finding solutions to the creative aspects, challenging the convention. 

“What can the bigger companies give back?” Sometimes also for startups, it would make sense to be a little more structured, to use certain routines, to be a little more convergent: not always divergent to expo options, but also be convergent to find a solution. 

That's a give and take between both of them where they can benefit from one another.
And if you go in with that right mindset by both parties, it will work. It will work because then people actively look for these benefits. Whereas the worst case is that all people expect the others to function: it's a flawed thought.
But I think that there's a high potential for synergy, that's high potential for cross-pollination.

The certifications in the sustainability landscape

It's a confusing field for many people because it's an emerging field, there is no global standard yet. There are global standards like B Corp and some others as schools or major metrics systems which try to measure things, but there's not one yet.

I always tell the story about in the 1920s in the US every company, in terms of financials, was quick to record business progress and business results as they wanted. So sales and costs and profits or losses: there wasn't a standardized income statement or balance sheet or cash flow statement. And that in transparency led to a huge overvaluation of companies on the stock markets. Then we know what happened in 1929: black Monday hit and all the New York stock exchanges crashed with it, then all the other stock exchanges around the world. Then we went into the global depression and in the aftermath of this, the US mandated the general accounting principles: that was a standardization. So that, you had to follow a certain format and for your income statement for a balance sheet and for cash flow so that the financial health of companies could be cross-compared to one another.
There is still some creativity when you come up with these statements and you can switch a little bit, but it was already much more standardized and much more transparent than what would exist before. 

I think we are in a similar phase today when it comes to people and planet measures. They are emerging in different parts of the world, there's no one global standard and I hope it doesn't take another global depression to install these. My question is: what's the role of the European Union and regulatory bodies of the United Nations?

One very concerning thing about ESG investing people is that they think they're doing good. We had a big scandal here in Germany with Deutsche Bank: they did an investigation and the green ETFs weren't so green they just declared them. And what are the universal metrics so that you call it an ESG certified fine? 
I think that there's a lot of grey zones. There's a lot of criminal energy left over from the old, but I hope we got the audit mechanism in place that we can weed out the real stuff from the one who only pretends.

And again, the new generations have zero vulture tolerance and that holds true for consumption - how you consume services from products - but also how you invest. People more and more ask "Okay I want to invest my money, but what do I invest to, but at what cost do I give them to? And is it really clean as the sustainable companies? I'm funding with my money here." and I think that's pretty good thinking is important in the context of expansion.

About the author

Robert Gierke

Founder, PURENESSITY | Purpose-Charge Your Business & Digital Transformation Expert | Change Maker & Keynote Speaker