A lot of companies doing business out there insist on promoting their brands with a lot of blather about giving back to communities, preserving the environment, or acting humanely toward their employees. Instead of watching them launder profitmaking intentions in the suds of civic virtue, wouldn’t you prefer they just go ahead and do what they’re going to do anyway – but with one big caveat: Whatever you do, don’t damage society or Planet Earth, two critical resources that humans, animals and plants count on inhabiting for a long time to come.
Do that, corporate leaders, and dispense with the “goodwashing” you think makes the company look more caring. Goodwashing at its worst looks like the magician’s distracting hand, waved with a flair in one direction to divert the viewer’s eye while the other hand completes the trick.
Take the case of hotels where cheery little admonishment cards greet you in the bathrooms and bedrooms. Go without maid service, take no change of bath towels and bed sheets and you’re somehow a better citizen. Unsaid: the hotels save on water bills, of course, and the cost of hiring maids and other pesky low-wage workers goes way down, too.
Or what about the oil companies that tout their efforts at fishery and seafloor preservation with projects like the creation of artificial reefs? Well, shoot, the effluent from the manufacture and use of petroleum products – including plastics, agricultural ammonia and lots of chemicals – represents the single biggest contributor to global climate change, a clear and present threat whose full-force whirlwind of destruction we have yet to reap.
And we can’t forget the proliferation of corporate social responsibility (CSR) officers in businesses, a growth employment sector with its own professional associations and certification programs. A friend of mine was part of the first stirrings of CSR in the 1980s at the Los Angeles headquarters of now-defunct First Interstate Bank. His prototype CSR role came less from the spirit of corporate good works than from a critical press investigation and exposure of the banking industry’s widespread but down-low practice of “redlining.” For decades, banks actively cut off access to home loans and other capital in certain neighborhoods, mostly those where people of color lived. Federal legislation put an end to such practices and both the law and public sentiment now demand that corporations show some deference to the wider social good.
The opposite of goodwashing is when a company takes a thorough top-to-bottom look at all of its business impacts – human, environmental, societal, global – and decides how to mitigate damaging results with structural, practical, economic, cultural and other reforms.
There’s something invigorating about drying the laundry outdoors in the bright sunshine and a fresh breeze.
"earth" by mulan (CC BY-SA 2.0)