Jan 23

Green-Washing a Company´s Image and a Consumer´s Conscience

Stephan Polomski
Stephan Polomski is director human resources, coach and trainer

In need for a responsible appearance and easement when it comes to licensing bans and rules many companies invest into public relation campaigns in order to pimp up their image. That´s what PR experts nowadays call “green-washing”. Not a white but a green – the bio – vest often hides a harmful core business. A new generation of ethical consumers focusing on a lifestyle of health and sustainability is truly attracted by bio-products and sustainable branding and supports these industries. They buy and even pay more for goods which are still produced on a low cost basis mostly in countries where human rights and environmental protection are not on the political agenda.

Neither companies nor consumers really care.

This is the conclusion Kathrin Hartmann, a German non-fiction author, draws summarizing her German book on this topic “End of the Fairy Tale.”

While McDonald´s or BP are coloring their brand appearence green, consumers contemporaneously shop a green vest for their own conscience. And, no way out: they become part of a vicious circle not by selling but by buying indulgences, she says.

Saving the world with a planted tree, changing the world through fund raising for the communities in the third world – - as consumers we invest a bit in the greater good and are a part of the huge brand campaign made out of corporate social responsibility.

“Like this, it is okay to ruin the mountain sites with our skis made of bio-renewable materials as long as we can afford it.”

Like this, it is okay to ruin the mountain sites with our skis made of bio-renewable materials as long as we can afford it.

May be this is, what Michael Porter meant already in 2002 with competitive advantage of corporate philanthropy as strategic objective proposing “a fundamentally new way to look at the relationship between business and society that does not treat corporate growth and social welfare as a zero-sum game. …Increasingly, philanthropy is used as a form of public relations or advertising, promoting a company’s image through high-profile sponsorships. But there is a more truly strategic way to think about philanthropy. Corporations can use their charitable efforts to improve their competitive context–the quality of the business environment in the locations where they operate. Using philanthropy to enhance competitive context aligns social and economic goals and improves a company’s long-term business prospects. Addressing context enables a company not only to give money but also leverage its capabilities and relationships in support of charitable causes.”

In my eyes, true charity does not link itself to any business purpose or strategy. This is where business attitude already takes the wrong track because there is a condition behind. In brand communication appears the first double signal of incongruence: I give, but I also want. That is not charity or philanthropy or social responsibility, but business.

The second double signal, expression of a double morale on both, companies´ and consumers´, sides, is way more dramatic, according to the findings of Kathrin Hartmann:

According to a study of the EU-Commission 86 percent of people in the wealthy countries know which impact their own lifestyle has when it comes to environmental or climate protection. However, 75 percent say, although they know they will not change their life style. The market share of eatables deriving of fair trade is only 1,5 percent, bio products lie around 3,5 percent. Bio beef is produced in Argentine and eaten in Germany after a trip around the world, asparagus from Chile and strawberries from the South of Spain even in winter times. The consummation of fish rises worldwide although oceans are getting empty and locals depending on fish starve. Last spring, when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull paralyzed the European airtraffic, 2 million tons of carbon dioxide where saved. At the same time, there are German concerns, who sponsor US-American politicians who vote against Obama´s climate policy. This list is open…

Did I myself stop flying, stop skiing, stop rejoicing my new car, my fast motorcycle, stop eating bio products? No, I did not. Because I certainly belong to the target group which seeks health and sustainability combined with wellbeing and prestige.

However, I do not need the green-washing of my own image and I do not pretend to save anybody by consuming something. What I do is directly donating every month an amount of money to my goddaughter in India, so that she can afford school and basic living. I do that, because I personally know the guarantor who is running the foundation near Bombay. Period.

Turning a profit company into a non-profit or charitable company by appearance is like turning the wolf into Little Red Riding Hood´s grandma. And business is no fairy tale.

It is good that people like Kathrin Hartmann research the facts and point out the consequences. For the interested German speaking blogger I highly recommend Kathrin Hartmann´s blog on her mentioned book “Ende der Märchenstunde. Wie die Industrie die Lohas und Life-Style-Ökos vereinnahmt.”

This entry was posted on Sunday, January 23rd, 2011 at 09:19 and is filed under Corporate Social Responsibility, Leadership, Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

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