Published 3 years ago.
About a 5 minute read.
To be effective, sustainability and purpose work should create positive business change, not positive media stories. They are management tools, not PR initiatives. So, should brands stop communicating until they’ve got something concrete to say?
Last month, McDonald’s launched a new
and set of commitments to “feed and foster communities.” At around the same
time, the bigger, mainstream story was that the fast-food giant would be
launching a meat-free burger next year, as part of a new meat-free range called
Now, what was really interesting about these announcements is how little it felt
like they had anything to do with one another. The big story was ‘McDonald’s
goes meat free,’ but where was this addressed in their sustainability strategy?
Alongside impressive carbon-action programmes, the focus is on ‘fixing
rather than finding more sustainable alternatives. In fact, there is not a
single reference to plant-based
in its Purpose and Impact Summary Report. And it is this kind of discrepancy —
between confident headlines and the actual details of the strategy — which
starts a ‘purpose wash’ debate.
Shouting ‘Purpose Wash’ on Twitter is a crude approach. The reality is, of
course, more complex. Sustainability strategies for big, global businesses are
hard enough for people who work in sustainability to understand, let alone
consumers. The trade-offs that are sometimes required between social and
environmental impact, the complexities of supply chains and the speed of
changing realities in systems are all layers of information that are too much
for most people to take in (or care about); so there will always be a headline
that is easier to digest — an interesting story at the top of the pyramid of
On the other hand, headline-grabbing announcements have shown big businesses
doing a better job at corporate communications than in their operational
delivery for too long. If you google ‘sustainability strategy + (insert big
global brand here)’ you will find years, sometimes decades of headlines like
‘xxxxx sets out bold ambition to integrate sustainability’ or ‘xxxxx will kick
start the green revolution.’ Track the reality of the change and it’s pretty
disappointing, compared with the hype. To be effective, sustainability and
purpose work should create positive business change, not positive media stories.
They are management tools, not PR initiatives. So, should brands stop
communicating until they’ve actually got something concrete to say?
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The answer is, of course, no. However, brands do need to be careful to help
people understand the size, scale and relationship of their newsworthy launches
when compared with their long-term plans. It is also powerful to invite more
interest and scrutiny into what they are doing beyond ‘the big launch.’ In a
recent interview to discuss Nike's new Space
Hippie shoe (their
lowest-carbon-impact product to date) Nike CSO Noel Kinder said: “It’s not
super hard to get excited about product, because it’s so unique … but it’s
operational progress that moves the needle.” In the interview, he states that it
is not the shoe — but the packaging strategy, the energy strategy, the promotion
and simplification of the sustainability strategy — that are more important.
And therein lies the challenge for commentators and critics. Instead of shouting
‘greenwash’ from the sidelines, we have to encourage business to try and make
the approach to sustainability more engaging, more relevant to people. This is
critical, because to hit net zero, we are all going to have to go through our
own transformation programmes — our diets, our homes and the way we travel will
all need to change dramatically over the next 10 years. Inspiration, guidance
and attractive choices must be provided by businesses and brands that have
enormous amounts of influence in our lives.
We know that, in terms of the climate emergency, what we need now are
revolutionary commitments and actions delivered at pace —such as Apple’s
or Microsoft’s ten-year ‘carbon-positive’
These are visible timelines, definitive actions — and getting them done will
probably hurt. And, yes — if, in a year’s time, Apple launches a new flagship
product for this programme, that will get the headlines; but it should also
trace back to the plan.
Where revolutionary initiatives don’t link up to the substance of a
revolutionary sustainability plan — or when a plan is seen to be lacking in
ambition compared to the noise created around a product — it is right to call it
out. The McPlant would have more clout and credibility if it was backed up by a
clear and ambitious strategy to drastically reduce the amount of meat McDonald’s
sells — as chains such as Max Burgers have done — and to promote more sustainable
McDonald’s sells 75 burgers every second, and this move has had the eyes and
ears of billions of consumers globally; it is a highly visible reminder of a
global mandate for change. But this must work in tandem with a sustainability
plan that faces into core challenges, rather than ignoring them.
McDonald’s has created an ambitious sustainability plan in many respects, but
tackling the revolutionary business challenge — ‘how do we innovate and invest
in more sustainable proteins, rather than simply try and mitigate the effect of
cattle farming?’ — is critical. This is not purpose washing, because McDonald’s
has an ambitious plan that it is delivering on in many areas of the business.
But businesses can’t simply continue to ignore the elephant, or in this case the
cow, in the room. Championing positive change and innovation externally — while
setting out a path to create a truly sustainable business with a high-performing
sustainable, business model — is the change that is really needed.
Published Dec 3, 2020 10am EST / 7am PST / 3pm GMT / 4pm CET
Becky Willan is Managing Director of Given — a brand purpose agency that helps businesses grow by doing good.