How Can We Save Purpose from Purpose-Wash?

very fun one on greenwashing :herb:

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Intent to do good and/or no harm is not an incentive. The current mash-up of SDG, SCR and other initiatives are start but might just create more errosion of trust. The fundamental change is in the corporate instructions and ownership rights even accounting and measurements (KPIs). We need to move from inventivizing growth that is equal to financial growth to move to human wellbeing. The crazy thing is that all of the needed elements are in place for this incentives for human wellbeing evolution to occur. The problem is the current system incentives are so ingrained and the mental models are persistent…


That is an everyday major challenge!

When working with clients that approach me with not necessarily the right intention (i.e. wanting a purpose in order to increase brand relevance), I see my role as educating them not only on what is purpose but also why by doing it well, you are future proofing your business.

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Agree @costa - it’s a big part of the job as a consultant/advisor to raise the ambition of the board/LT that you’re helping.

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Such an important point @Benkellard - today’s leadership are hopelessly ill-equipped to drive this change. When they did their MBAs in the 80s/90s, Greed was still Good and Prof Michael Porter hadn’t yet had his epiphany for Shared Value and was instead indoctrinating them with Shareholder Value. It’s hard to unlearn that stuff, especially if it got you to the top!

Ok. It sounds like we all agree on what bad-purpose is. Easy to point finger though.
Instead tell me, Q3: Can we save Purpose from Purpose-Wash? How?


Share price also reflects views of investors view of future value, however we seem to lack the tools for investors to measure that intangible value and social and environmental assets they rely upon. So I think there’s a measure gap. CISL developed an impact framework to help bridge this gap:

Totally agree with you both. It’s an active role also of creative agencies following the big brands. Alan Jope recently talked about woke-washing at Cannes and the Important they also have on refusing briefs that ask for campaigns which are then not backed up.

In 3 words

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A3: hummm, common industry measurements?
I think also brands/companies that purpose-wash are in taking a too big risk, that could damage the trust they’ve built historically with consumers for ever… Some of the most recent cases are Starbucks which purpose is “to inspire and nurture the human spirit one cup and neighbourhood at a time” and its inability to align tax responsibilities.

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what do you mean by that Gib?

Mike Barry from M&S shared this great build on the sustainable purpose we put out:
‘1.Purpose has to be felt through the products and services that a business sells (Tesla Car, Impossible Burger etc) not through a 100 page SDG Report. It needs to be emotional and exciting not factual and dry
2.Purpose cannot be delivered alone. To be a purposeful business in a wider economy and society that’s a wasteland is to fail! Business needs to be so much better at working in partnership with others to change the system to deliver collective purpose.
3.Purpose cannot be cherry picked! You can be famous for a few things done well but you cannot then neglect other issues. You either do purpose all-in, or you don’t at all.
4.Being a responsible business is very different from being a purposeful business. The former is functional, policy, KPI and reporting led. The latter is visceral personal ownership of doing your day job in the right way. Not leaving it the ‘machine’ to do but invested in and committed to yourself in all that you do.’


“You manage what you measure,” from a meaningful statement of productive focus into a cynical comment on how mere numbers can be distractionsfrom what is important. Those who focus too much on “bean counting” may wind up with excellent looking numbers while not actually accomplishing anything related to their mission. Alternatively, those who ignore the numbers to focus on the mission will look bad on paper; though they may be accomplishing great things, they struggle to tell their story to funders, investors, clients, and stakeholders.

For instance. The vast majority of SDG indicators are proportions and counts. Units of volume, mass, energy, flow, etc. are interpreted as units of sustainable. development.Counts are misconceved as measures. Scores are recognized as not comparable but are reported and compared anyway.

But sustainable development has not been modeled, observed, scaled, or calibrated to a standard (as human wellbeing).
Instead of interpreting multiple indicators in terms of a sustainability construct organized at a higher order complexity, that construct needs itself to be mapped, modeled, and measured.

So, now SDGs are a wicked feedback loop where only address the symptoms on a abstract level and not the underlying economic incentives.

This leads us to all to being accomplises of “washing” whether we want to or not. We just do not know what we mean or how to measure the delta - the change.

By gradually integrating purpose led goals into the narrative, then reporting on the performance of those non financial goals on an annual basis and reflecting on how they serve the business and its stakeholders. Another way for businesses to do this, a much deeper way in fact, but this will take a while to happen, is to really understand how purpose impacts your specific company’s financial performance (perhaps through materiality assessments or by linking sustainability goals such as the UN SDGs) through scenario analysis and stress testing and then report on it to your public shareholders as you do traditional financial statements at present.

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Transparency, transparency, transparency. But how do we enforce transparency?

Good points…mental models are so deeply engrained. We need to challenge the dogma and received wisdom about what the role of business is in society

I agree, creative agencies typically have a big capability gap too, to really help clients understand their holistic issues so that they can bring their creativity to bear in a meaningful way for the brand.

Yes we can. It’s important we all put in place strategies that follow all the pillars before getting to the say: define, live, do, partner. Now that doesn’t mean, I think that everything should have had already significant results before you are getting to a say. Sometimes it’s about taking other people with you on the journey. Sometimes the say is the do (esp. on advocacy etc…). The important thing is that everything we do is integral part of a long term plan. Not fleeting. As also we discussed before

We have to work with the 2013 class.
Starting from Sept, with the 1st year of education, we have to fix a common Global Civic Education Act program for K-12.
We have to deliver messages to students that they can be have an impact on them parents on doing actions.
Recently, with Doxa (a research firm), we are discovered that 83% of students that worked with brands, tell back home to them parents what they did at School.
Basicly, what we have to do, is deliver the message to act to students that can be the family leaders on doing for good.
This actions delivered for brand will not be recepits as “a washing action”, but a better cultural behaviour.