You’ve probably heard slogans like these before: make an impact that matters. Build a better working world. Don’t be evil. This latest business trend compels organisations to express a central guiding purpose. Doing good for society is the best way to attract millennial talent while maximising profits. Correction: pretending to do good for society is the best way to attract millennial talent while maximising profits. Greenwashing, organisations pretending to be eco-friendly, is a mainstream term now. The lesser-known purpose-washing, however, is just as prevalent – and just as bad.
Having a purpose or aligning with a cause enables consumers and employees to feel like they are contributing to something positive, even when the overall reality is radically different. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, many organisations are standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yet in many cases, this is blatantly hypocritical, particularly in fast fashion. This industry is built upon forms of neo-colonialism, exploiting a vulnerable workforce of “black and brown bodies” in places like Cambodia and Myanmar. Many companies stand by some cause or purpose. Few live by it.
I’m not asking for organisations to be 100% consistent with their purpose, but at least actually try. I’m a climate activist, who also invests in index funds (some of which I guess are in fossil fuels) and enjoys the sauna occasionally. But I haven’t flown or bought any new clothes in the past year, eat mainly vegetarian and have never driven a car. These fashion brands are doing the equivalent of eating vegetarian one day a month while simultaneously jet-setting all over the world every week.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
I could go on, but blaming and shaming individuals or organisations usually won’t help. We all operate within a system with constraints that make it difficult to live fully aligned with our purpose. As an economics graduate, I understand that if companies can get away with pretending to live by a purpose to maximise their profits, they will. In fact, maybe some need to, in order to survive in our existing economic system.
For most consumers, money is a barrier. If the train from London to Paris costs 85 euros, it’s unfair to blame someone with a lower budget for taking a 35 euro flight instead - even if they do care about the climate crisis. It’s also unfair to blame indebted young graduates for accepting positions at companies that are taking more from the world than they are giving. They want to start their career in a reputable organisation and pay off their debts. And with the high salaries on offer within many of these industries, if you don’t take that job, someone else will.
Purpose-washing plays on the psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias: “the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information that confirms or supports one's prior beliefs or values.” The nice mission statement of the organisation we work for or consume from helps us rationalise our behaviour. We want to confirm our belief that we’re a good person that is making the world better.
Buying into a stated purpose can also be a form of ego-protection. If you have worked at the same organisation for 30 years, admitting that your company was destroying society would also destroy your sense of worth. For this reason, I think most executives in the fossil fuel industry are genuinely proud of the work they do. Some may even think they are doing good.
Can you escape purpose-washing?
In my last job as an innovation consultant, I enhanced the well-being and creativity of colleagues within the Tax & Legal department. This made their lives better, but by supporting them, I was also enabling them to do their work better – which to a significant extent was helping large companies minimise their tax burdens.
This is not a legacy I’m proud of. But while having that job, I spent my evenings and much of my working days developing the skills I needed to make the positive impact I now make (or hope that I make 😊). And I use the money I made in that job to give me the freedom to do purposeful work – including climate activism, alongside my business. And I took that 85 euro train from Paris to London last month to see my family, because I have the financial means to prioritise my values above monetary savings.
With great privilege comes great responsibility Many of you reading this might also be well-educated, with some money in the bank. Being that you’ve probably read a lot of personal development blogs (hopefully some from me), you will have the self-awareness to overcome confirmation bias and ego-defensiveness. You have much more freedom than most to choose to do work and live your life in a way that is driven by purpose.
So if you want to live a meaningful working life, how can you cut through the purpose-washing that surrounds us? Reflect on these next questions and, while it might be hard, be fully honest with yourself.
1. Who benefits from your work? Think of individuals and their connections. Perhaps the benefit is indirect, as you support an organisation and thus give value to their stakeholders.
2. How do they benefit? Maybe you make their life easier, save them time, or help them gain more money.
3. Now the tough one: does this benefit help make the world a better place, overall? This is where most purpose slogans fall apart. Consulting for organisations to reduce their tax burdens may benefit a few people, but at a global level, it increases wealth inequality, hurting the poorest in the end.
Are you satisfied with this contribution? You don’t have to compare yourself with anybody else; we all have different abilities and constraints. If you’re happy with your contribution, that’s great. Just remember that your ability to live a purpose-driven life might be much bigger than you think.