Is ‘Purpose Washing’ the new Green Washing?

Is purpose washing the new green washing?

Ok, I know Silicon Valley is only made up satire, and surely people and companies don’t really do this, do they?

Well, in the short time I’ve been on the west coast, I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum, from amazing companies who really deliver the positive impact that drives them, to those who know its what’s expected, and desperately reverse engineer a purpose, or higher calling into their vision and mission. The simple truth of it is, ‘if it ain’t there, don’t make it up’. People aren’t stupid, they see through this, no matter what you think or say, and social media can just smell this, miles away. The good news is that for the vast majority of ventures, there is a strong compelling, balanced position. Just being simple, straightforward and honest are the guiding lights.

It used to be called CSR or corporate social responsibility, and when when I was in Communications for a large business in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, it meant asking the staff what charities they wanted to support, making their donations tax efficient and matching their personal giving. It also meant trying to minimize the environmental impact of manufacturing and logistics. So all in all, things that no one could criticize as not being positive contributions. But that’s we’re it ended. It certainly was not part of the core day to day activity of the business. We got back to the serious business in hand, feeling we could hold up our heads as being socially responsible. And there was nothing wrong with that.

Skip forward 15 years and the world in which businesses are born and develop has moved on. Now a significant proportion of consumers want to understand the impact that you’re having on the health and wellbeing of your customers, your employees and the local communities around you. They want you to acknowledge that we don’t live in a perfect world and what was once ignored (or hidden) is now out in the open for all to scrutinize. They want to feel that there is an open and honest exchange so that they can make their own minds up about you and what you do, rather than a sanitized version of what you believe in and why you exist.

Those companies that retrospectively are trying to create links between what they do and a contribution to the greater good, are not only stretching their customers’ credulity, they are attempting to distract you with the right hand, hoping you wont see what the left hand is up to.

Alternatively, companies that weren’t started with a higher calling or purpose, but are focusing hard on mitigating the impacts of what they do, and, are having honest and open dialogue about it, will no doubt be the survivors and winners in the future. We know that our attitudes to what constitutes positive progress are constantly changing and evolving. We also know that businesses are, like ourselves, far from perfect, but an honest assessment and a promise to move as rapidly as possible to a better solution, is a good, straightforward deal for the vast majority of people.

All ventures are started for a reason. Admittedly, some a lot more altruistic than others, but unless your DNA and subsequent success was based on exploitation or law breaking, then your founders motives are worth exploring, understanding and sharing. Whether it was democratizing a sector through affordability or creating well paid employment in a community, that thread often runs through your history and still guides decisions today.

So whether you’re a start up, driven by playing your part in solving a problem in your community, or you’ve been around a 100 years and you’re adapting to a rapidly changing world and customer expectations, the rules are the same. Be honest, be authentic, share your motivations, pragmatism and optimism in equal measure, and customers and your employees will respond in kind. Thinking that your purpose or mission are just like greenwashing, a quick fix to tick that box, and you might find yourself feeling exposed to the scrutiny that’s definitely coming your way.