Future Brands

Is ‘purpose-washing’ the new greenwashing?

Tess Robinson

This post was guest authored by Luke Dean-Weymark is the co-founder and Director of purpose-led communications and creative agency Compass Studio — a boutique communications and creative agency, with macro thinking.  With over 15 years of experience across the Australian and UK PR industry, Luke is passionate about preserving our planet and the power of PR & Marketing.

Over the past few years there has been an astronomical boom in brands professing to be ‘purpose-led’. All sorts of businesses from early stage start-ups through to established corporations are adopting the term and splashing it across their comms – from keynote speeches to dedicated website pages – but how do we ensure that our internal actions add up to our external proclamations?

Because of Compass’ impact-led niche within the PR and Digital Marketing realm, we hear from lots of brands who are about to launch but ‘need’ a cause to latch on to, as they believe that’s the secret sauce to a successful business . It’s a difficult conversation to have and one even harder to make recommendations around. But isn’t one brand doing something, better than doing nothing – you ask? Yes, absolutely. Yet as an industry we cannot contribute to the dilution of impact for the sake of a strong launch or rebrand.

When we first started Compass, we were very much focused on environmental sustainability as our sole ‘purpose’. At the time, this felt like the most important mission to Nat and I. But what we’ve since come to realise is that there are many extremely important – and multi-layered – issues in the world and all of these causes hold varying degrees of importance and urgency to everyone, usually depending on our age, gender, culture, ability, belief systems, personal privileges and occupation.

For instance:

A family struggling to afford their weekly groceries are naturally and rightfully less concerned about the impact of industrial agriculture than they are about the rising rate of financial inequality across the country.

A person of colour who endures the effects of unconscious – or often conscious – bias on a daily basis is probably more passionate about the battle for racial equality than the battle against ocean plastics.

A woman who is continually harassed when catching public transport late at night would almost certainly rather her local government crack down on surveillance, security and sanctions to keep her and her friends protected before using its entire transport budget on building a couple of electric car charging stations.

You get the picture.

What we’ve started to see recently is a lot of businesses picking one key issue, labelling it their ‘purpose’ and self-congratulating themselves for doing so, but then ignoring or not even acknowledging all kinds of other crucial problems that society faces – from systemic racism to domestic violence, animal cruelty to rural poverty, and sadly many more.

Of course, again – it’s always better to do something rather than nothing. We would never discourage or discredit any piece of positive progress. However, putting out a few feebly labelled recycling bins, giving employees one token day of ‘charity’ a year, or simply ticking a CSR box in another fairly superficial way does not automatically make an organisation ‘purpose-led’. Brands and their leaders need to take an increasingly holistic, big picture approach to responsible business practice.

Yep, it’s great that you no longer fund a piss-up for the Melbourne Cup, but how about you allow your employees an afternoon away from their desks to march in the protests that matter most to them?

You’re trialling biodegradable toilet paper and refillable soap in the new office bathrooms, brilliant. But have you thought about how someone in a wheelchair will access these toilets that have no ramp or sizeable cubicle?

So how can businesses avoid being guilty of some of these blinds spots?

Well, first and foremost, through representation. It’s acutely true that ‘you can be what you can’t see’. Of course if you’re someone who has identified as Cis all your life you might not have given too much thought to how difficult the company’s new starter forms listing M or F as a tick-box may be. Or, why the members of your team with Aboriginal ancestry would really rather not ‘celebrate’ a mandatory public holiday on January 26th.

Here are a few more takeaways to add substance to your business’ sense of purpose:

Expand your conversations

You need to allow your team a platform to voice their perspectives and passions and share them with those who may have had little or no exposure to certain matters. Empower your people to create initiatives around the things they care about and educate others about them, so the lessons can live on.

Show don’t tell

Not every good move you make needs to be shouted about on social media. Quietly getting on with good work behind the scenes is far more authentic than sprinkling ‘sustainable’ and ‘purpose’ beside some highly designed Instagram tiles. Although there’s a lot to be said for spreading awareness, not everything you do has to be – or should be – part of an external marketing campaign. Actions always speak louder than words – their intentions are purer.

Make it a curiosity, not a duty

Making the time, effort, and often uncomfortable move to open your mind, test your empathy and learn about something outside of your everyday life needn’t be a burden. When anything feels too overwhelming, many of us end up doing nothing, which isn’t helpful at all, so my advice would be, just start somewhere.

How about organising a non-fiction book club among your colleagues and/or friends, where each month a different person selects a social topic that everyone reads about?

Or, instead of binge watching five episodes of your favourite series on a Sunday evening, try scrolling through Netflix a little further and turn it into a weekly doco-night, where you can immerse yourself into a new subject each week and discover something you would have never otherwise engaged with?

Pay attention to who is paying attention

As well as noticing the brands that are plagiarising purpose badly, it is also really worth examining those who embed and execute it well.  In my opinion, an excellent example of this is Thankyou Group. The brand began by selling bottled water in single-use plastic and used the profits to fund projects towards ending world poverty. However, over the course of a decade since they started, attitudes towards single use plastic changed dramatically and Thankyou found it increasingly difficult to reconcile the good they were doing for people with the bad they were simultaneously doing for the planet. Ending world poverty is their fundamental mission, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of the environment, so after 12 years of business they let go of their genesis product and found alternative ways of making an even more positive contribution. An example of this is their new plastic free personal care range, or their very recent announcement of going carbon neutral.

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