Is purpose-washing the new greenwashing?

You might remember greenwashing? When firms were called out for purporting to be green in ethos, but not practising what they preached? Well, think of purpose-washing as the greenwashing of 2023.

Ok, but what is it? 

In a nutshell, it’s when a business claims that it has a meaningful, cause-based purpose and uses its brand, campaigns, PR strategy, or people to promote that message without actually backing it up with genuine action. For instance, if a brand shouts loudly from their social-media pages about being  environmentally friendly, but isn’t actually making an effort to ensure the company itself is sustainable.

How can we avoid this?

By putting in the hard graft before launching your cause to the world. It is all well and good saying that you are eco-friendly and shouting about the importance of recycling, but behind the scenes, you are lobbing it all in the same bin. 

In today’s climate of standing for something and letting the world know, many firms have shouted about their ‘purpose’ and how they are going to save the world or be all-inclusive, before actually implementing the purpose plan and acting on it. 

Purpose or cause, what’s the difference?

Another stumbling block for firms is knowing the difference between a purpose and a cause. A social or environmental purpose dictates a firm’s decisions and actions and a cause is a social or environmental issue that your company supports, maybe through donating or raising awareness.

At ELE, being a B Corp means we’re committed to making a difference through actions, not just words. Through our purpose pathway we strive to be a model organisation and pride ourselves in delivering our intentions and promises, whilst identifying our weaknesses and areas for improvement with transparency.

In April 2021, as part of our giving back promise through which we support women in Africa and social schemes, we signed up to 1% for the planet, a global incentive through which we have pledged to give at least 1% of our annual sales to approved environmental nonprofits. Since then we’ve honoured this agreement by supporting two environmental charities that members of the team chose, the John Muir Trust and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. This was as well as working towards our goal of providing 10% of our turnover as pro bono services. In this way we’ve been able to support Lawyers for Net Zero and the Stephen Lloyd Awards amongst others.

A law firm striding forward in sticking to their purpose is Aria Grace Law, their mission is ‘to demonstrate through deeds not words, that a law firm can be profitable, be excellent and serve its clients whilst simultaneously driving ethical standards of equality, diversity, flexibility, equal pay and giving all of our profits to charity and good causes together with delivering sustainability, a zero carbon footprint, and……that if a law firm can do this, then any business can’. 

Law firms are also starting to be more public about reviewing how ethical a client or the case is before agreeing to represent them. Leigh Day’s international team ‘brought the first cases which defined the law for how multinational corporations based in the UK could be held accountable for pollution and massive environmental degradation’. 

The B Corp law firm, Radiant Law, speaks loudly about the importance of its people and belongs to the Mindful Business Charter, an initiative ‘created by Barclays and two of their panel law firms, aimed at removing unnecessary stress and enabling people to work more effectively and efficiently, as well as be happier and healthier’.

And these are just a handful of law firms starting to move to true purpose, rather than supporting causes. 

But we really believe in our purpose!

The buzz word here is authenticity. Don’t jump on the purpose bandwagon without reflecting it in every layer of your business. The B Corp Patagonia, is founded on social purpose as reflected in their latest move of ‘giving away their company to save the planet’ and without purpose it wouldn’t thrive to the scale that it is.

Culprits of purpose-washing include Starbucks, who after pledging to donate £100,000 to the trans-youth charity Mermaids through the sale of cookies, was met by an outcry from former and current employees, saying that Starbucks was most definitely not trans-inclusive.

McDonalds, also fell down the rabbit hole of seemingly trying to gloss over past attitudes with the launch of their McPlant Meat Free range, which glaringly brought to light the holes in its sustainability plan, which absolutely did not mirror the image it was going for. Your approach needs to be watertight, a shiny million pound advertising campaign, may well bedazzle potential clients, but will also bring to light any hypocritical and contradictory actions prior to this. 

What next? 

The key is transparency and integrity. Make sure your ethos and brand is stable and secure in its mission, before your sparkly marketing campaign is launched and understand the different sustainability and ethical frameworks such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals and B Corp that can be used to structure your strategy, as well as to report on progress.

As the only agency that advises the legal sector from a purpose and responsibility perspective and that knows the professional services space inside and outside, not only can we advise you on how to go about promoting your purpose the right way and make an impact for all the right reasons, we also offer a purpose audit. Yes you read it right, we’re here to help! Get in touch here to find out more. 

Written by Kirsty McRae

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