• Daisy Powell-Chandler

Beware of purposewashing

A client looked at me dubiously last week and said, politely but sceptically: "But isn't this new emphasis on purpose just the next version of greenwashing? Is there really any point?" As ever, the answer is yes... and no.

As environmental concerns have become increasingly mainstream - and more companies hired CSR teams to care about these issues on their behalf - many have been accused of 'greenwashing' rather than authentically 'greening'. What's the difference? Greenwash is cosmetic. It relies on stunts or on nice language to give the impression on environmental concern, without making any real effort to mitigate the impact of the business's key commercial activities. Examples range from using delightful, nature-inspired images on the plastic packaging of your palm-oil-filled snacks, to calling your product a 'clean diesel' car when actually it produces higher levels of pollutants than other cars.

volunteers picking up litter
Adding a company volunteer program might get you good photos for the website but it does not mean you can ignore other impacts of your business

Undoubtedly, there will be some organisations who treat purpose in a similar manner. The CEO has watched Simon Sinek's TED talk, and so they hire someone to come up with a brand purpose and write inspiring copy for the website. This might help you to communicate more clearly (maybe) but it isn't going to boost your bottom line and it certainly isn't going to change the world.

So why do I keep banging on about purpose? Because purpose done properly can be so much more. Finding your organisation's purpose means digging down into why your team comes to work every day. Yes, the money helps, but everybody likes to know that they are part of something bigger and to go home at the end of a shift feeling as if they have achieved something.

Once you can clearly articulate what it is that your team does together, then everything becomes easier. It is easier to hire the right people because you will attract kindred souls and test them against clearer objectives; it is easier to identify new areas growth because you can test each opportunity against your aims; it is easier to make operational decisions on the fly - and to trust your team to do the same - when you are all motivated by the same end goal. And each of these has a commercial impact: hiring staff is expensive while team retention aids institutional memory and camaraderie; faster strategic decisions make an organisation more agile and better able to leap on a new opportunity; speeding up operational decisions simultaneously empowers your team and improves end-user experience.

Done well, a corporate purpose explains to colleagues and customers why you do what you do. But humans are remarkably savvy and if the purpose you proclaim to the world is not matched by your actions, then observers will be all too swift to either laugh or condemn.

My advice: if you cannot authentically describe the purpose at the centre of your business, steer clear of the own-goal of 'purposewashing' as it can wreak havoc on your reputation.