The next 'green wash'? Corporate purpose used as window dressing, execs fear

The current trend towards the articulation of corporate purpose could give rise to "purpose wash" in the same way that the reaction of some businesses to calls for environmental responsibility was to commit "green wash", it is feared.

The greater adoption of purpose as a business framework could produce a misunderstanding of the level of commitment required to be truly purpose-driven, according to Purpose in Practice, a new report by London PR agency Claremont Communications.

Some of the 25 senior decision-makers and thinkers interviewed for the report expressed concerns about misplaced expressions of corporate purpose, such as Nicole Vanderbilt, international vice-president of e-commerce company Etsy. 

"We want a world where people are trying to find a purpose, that’s great, but there are companies that are adding it as a sort of last lick of paint. An equivalent to greenwashing has definitely become purpose washing," she said.

Her concern was shared by Julian Lings, sustainability manager at The North Face, who said: "The danger is ‘purpose’ becomes a throwaway line that is passively mentioned in the same way that corporate values often can be... purpose needs to be actively lived."

Dan Joy, UK country manager at Ikano Bank, asked: "Is there a thin veneer of authenticity and wanting to do the right thing, or is it properly embedded in the organisation? If you allow a group of marketers or senior executives to go and conjure up a new or revised purpose in a darkened room you’re on a hiding to nothing."

Claremont’s report concludes that authentic purpose-driven business requires a world view that goes above and beyond corporate social responsibility, in which rather than being a business unit, purpose is best understood as both a mindset and a process.

Participants stated that having a purpose means thinking differently about value. It involves thinking about the short term and the long term – about economic and societal wellbeing – about how business relates to society and the world at large.

Central to the ability to embed purpose in a business will be the business’ ability to communicate effectively with its staff, suppliers, partners, shareholders and customers, the report says.

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