Trigger warning: this post discusses suicide and mental health
Today’s business leaders want to solve problems.
There’s profit to be made in having a strong brand purpose.
64% of global consumers say they choose brands because of their stand on social issues, and 91% of millennials would switch brands for one which champions a cause.
But this rise in social consciousness has unfortunately brought with it a rise in “purpose washing”.
While some brands are deeply committed to the causes and issues they campaign for, others are being accused of “cashing in” – using these messages in their marketing without making a real, meaningful contribution by changing their business practices.
We only have to look at the amount of rainbow branding used on products and adverts during Pride to see what’s happening.
Social movements are being commodified by marketers.
Examples of purpose washing are visible everywhere.
Earlier this month Starbucks was widely applauded for their new advert which follows a young trans man changing his name.
The coffee chain pledged to raise at least £100,000 for the trans youth charity Mermaids by selling biscuits shaped like a mermaid’s tail, which are now available in store.
However, the campaign came under criticism when it was called out by a number of past and present employees accusing the brand of not living up to its promise of being trans-inclusive.
Employees have reported being deadnamed and outed without consent by managers, and have struggled to get surgeries covered by the company’s health insurance plan.
And Starbucks aren’t the only ones…
Just this week a popular fast fashion brand has been accused of purpose washing for their new #BeKind t-shirt – released on Monday in response to tragic events at the weekend that led to increased media attention on mental health.
The 100% cotton t-shirt is printed with the words “In a world where you can be anything…Be Kind”. Selling for £10, with free delivery, donating “100% of profits” to the Samaritans mental health charity.
The brand claims to have raised over £300,000 from sales so far.
However, there is no mention of how much profit they are making per t-shirt, and a concerning lack of transparency about how these t-shirts are being manufactured so quickly.
On the surface, this has been a very impactful campaign raising a lot of money and awareness for their charity partners.
But in reality, this is sadly another example of purpose washing.
It takes 2,700 litres of water to make 1 cotton t-shirt (enough for one person to drink for 900 days), with cotton being the largest consumer of water in the apparel supply chain.
Mid-week, the brand announced an additional 50,000 t-shirts had become available online. That’s 135,000,000 litres of water used (in addition to the water used to crease those already sold).
Globally we’re using water faster than we can consume it.
Over 60,000 Indian farmers and farm workers have died by suicide over the past three decades – partially due to the strain drought is putting on their crops, and the debt they are incurring to sustain their farms under these conditions.
Research has found that rainfall increases of as little as 1cm each year were associated with an average 7% drop in the suicide rate.
The brand refuses to disclose the location of their factories or any details about their supply chain – but many fast fashion brands use factories in Bangladesh, where according to one study, 20% of women working in garment factories suffer from depression.
The Be Kind campaign may have raised over £300,000 to help people in the United Kingdom and Ireland who are struggling with their mental health (through the Samaritans) – but in doing so, it may be having a negative impact on the people involved in the supply chain.
Fast fashion is also a significant contributor to climate change, as one one the most polluting industries in the world, and textile waste is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the UK.
Researchers at Stanford University have found a small but statistically significant correlation between temperature increase and suicide rate. A 1°C rise in average monthly temperature was associated with an increase in the monthly suicide rate of 0.68% and 2.1% in the United States and Mexico, respectively (after factoring in adjustment for the possible influences of poverty, handgun possession and other socioeconomic factors).
Short term this campaign may have had a positive impact, but long term the production and disposal of these t-shirts will contribute to further global warming, which could make the mental health crisis, in this country and abroad, much worse.
At best, this campaign has been a misjudged, reactionary way of raising funds, without thinking about the full impact.
At worst, it could be seen as a brand building exercise, capitalising on a young woman’s death to garner free publicity.
Without complete transparency from the brand about their production practices, we are unable to tell. When that is the case, consumers will draw their own conclusions, and when based on their knowledge of the fast fashion industry as whole, these will not always be favourable.
Either way, this serves as the perfect cautionary tale against purpose washing.
Customers are starting to see through these campaigns
53% of consumers think brands aren’t as committed to society as they claim.
It’s clear that raising money for a good cause is not enough.
If your business wants to show a real commitment, purpose must be embedded at a business level, not just a marketing one.
What to do if you’re asked to purpose wash
Purpose washing campaigns often begin because a business leader is passionate about a cause, or triggered by a recent event and wants to help.
Often the idea is well-meaning, but a rushed execution can lead to unintended purpose washing.
If you’re asked to create or run a campaign linked to a social issue, take a pause to make sure your brand isn’t being reactionary.
Consider how this issue is embedded in your company’s behaviour and policies – both positively and negatively.
Wherever possible, engage members of the community associated with the cause to get their feedback and make sure what you create is inclusive and supportive.
You will also need to be prepared to answer questions.
It’s natural that your company’s social or environmental impact will have limitations, and there will be areas where you’re trying to improve. But if you’re running a purpose-driven campaign, you will need to be prepared to share evidence of your impact, be open about your limitations and prove that you’re not purpose washing.
Prepare your strategy for handling difficult questions, calls for transparency and potential criticism in advance to avoid any PR disasters.
If the issue or cause isn’t fully embedded into the way the business operates, you could be accused of purpose washing if you go public with a marketing campaign too early.
Alternatively, this could be a good opportunity to make a positive impact within the organisation.
If you feel you’re being asked to prepare a purpose washing campaign, don’t be afraid to challenge the request.
Put forward a business case for the social or environmental issue with some examples of how this could be better embedded at a business level, and suggest that this would actually be a more meaningful way to make an impact right now – and a good marketing story to tell later.
Purpose requires a full 360 degree approach – not another PR campaign.
It’s not a job for the marketing department or product development team alone, but an opportunity to build teams and embed your brand values into every part of the business.