White washing has an expanded colour palette. Originally (16th century) an inexpensive paint, whitewash was used politically in the 19th century in reference to American President Adams. Today we use it colloquially to mean “covering up bad behavior” – and now it comes in different hues. Green-washing is when companies make environmental claims that are superficial at best, fraudulent at worst; Blue-washing are superficial claims around improving water footprint; and now there is Pink-washing, superficial claims around supporting women’s breast cancer.
These terms reflect our deep distrust of corporations. We believe that corporations are motivated only by profit maximization, and can’t possibly be genuinely concerned about social and environmental actions. If they are it is because of business considerations. For example, when Walmart is committed to reducing transportation costs and creates a new mechanism that can load more palettes on delivery trucks it is not about protecting the environment, it is about reducing energy costs. By reducing their operational costs, Walmart is able to deliver on its business mandate – deliver the best quality products at the lowest possible prices – and its Brand promise – Save Money. Live Better.
Whether Walmart is motivated by environmental considerations or not is not the point. They can be making the world environmentally a better place because of their business motivations and mandate. Holding on to the notion that pure intentions matter misses the great good that companies can and do achieve.
Savvy social and environmental activists understand this: one needs to speak to the interests and motivations of companies and individuals if you want them to pay attention. Companies have adopted environmental stewardship because it satisfies the need for cost reduction. Historically most human resources policy was adopted because it improved employee performance, attraction and retention. Every person who has ever had to convince a child or a partner to do something knows the power of “speaking to the listening”.
But we hold onto the notion of authentic intentions. While we might get the behavior we want from our partner because we successfully convinced them, we will probably be dissatisfied because we want them not only to act, but to be motivated in the right way. I don’t just want you to just say you are sorry, I want you to really believe that you are sorry. And that is what we expect of corporations. We judge their intentions, not their actions.
But perhaps the deeper question is can you market authenticity? Can a company, even when genuine, convince us of their authenticity? The conventional communication tools speak some form of washing: public showcasing of executives often feels like PR spin; creative communication campaigns feels like slick marketing; cause marketing feels like “you buy, we give”; and where there are sometimes real action on one hand there is conflicting corporate behavior on the other. Think Coca Cola Live Positively and all the community issues they are committed to – it all sounds great until we remember that the company still markets and sells sugar drinks to kids.
So what if companies could speak in authentic ways, would we be able to hear and absorb? I am not sure. We the audience have been nurtured on marketing which makes us savvy consumers of corporate speak, but we have also been rendered unable to understand anything but the creative reductivism that is marketing language.
Whether it is Nike and Just Do It, Apple and Think Different, Amex and My Life. My Card, or DeBeers and A Diamond is Forever, these taglines have become our truths. And now we need all truths presented in this short, snappy, often grammatically incorrect manner. Brands discovered a creative and entertaining way to tell us who they were. Nurtured on this, we now live in a world dominated by the short and snappy; Think Twitter, think news headlines. We have created a world of marketing tropes that prevents the complexity of ideas reaching us.
So even if a company or a brand were genuinely committed to a social or environmental issue it is not clear we would ever see or hear that. They would feel they need to tell us the story in simple, entertaining terms and we would read that as brand marketing which by definition is selling us image not truth. The short and snappy combination is incapable of delivering authentic truth.
We have created our own conundrum. We lust after image, but we crave authentic connection. We want to be marketed to, but we judge by intention. We are the creator of, and slaves to marketing that is powerful precisely because it has reduced complexity. But it may have also made authenticity impossible.