Doing the right thing vs. doing the right thing for business

Have you heard of ‘greenwashing’? I hadn’t either until I did some work a few years ago for a company that organised conferences on the topic of ethical business. Greenwashing is when a company does the ‘right thing’ (paying a living wage, doing business ethically, not damaging the environment, reducing its carbon footprint) not because it’s intrinsically good, but because it makes them look good. So it’s a cynical attempt at looking virtuous in the eyes of their clients and prospects. Whitewashing their dodgy practices so they look green – hence the name. The trouble with a few rotten apples in the business barrel is that they inevitably affect the perception of the others. And when all business is tarred with the same brush (think the Occupy movement) then it’s clearly got a problem. Does that mean that you shouldn’t even bother? That the dodgy ones make everyone seem suspect, so it’s not even worth putting in the effort? I don’t think so. Because these initiatives have a way of taking on a momentum of their own. They may be started because of pressure from above, or outside, or because the sales figures in certain socially-conscious market segments are looking decidedly lacklustre. But they then take on a life of their own, making staff more proactive and responsible, showing customers they’ve made the right choice, and demonstrating to prospects that you’re the one they should choose. And that’s a great story to tell.

Inside out

I worked a while back with a company that had just achieved its ISO 14001 certification. Which means what, exactly? Well, it means that they try to reduce their energy consumption, look for sustainable suppliers, recycle rubbish and find ways of minimising their impact on the environment. I wrote a press release and web copy for it, so I had to dig a little deeper to find out when it started, how the process worked and what results they’d achieved. And the more I talked to people, the more my cynicism took a hit. Staff genuinely cared about these things – to the point where they were taking material home to recycle it with their domestic waste. They wanted to reduce their carbon footprint, and powered down PCs and turned off lights before they left. And why? Because they’d taken on board the idea that the planet is under threat, and that we all need to do our bit to change it. In fact, the idea to become ISO-certified had come more from inside than out.

Slowly, slowly

OK, so much for the process. But how do you you tell your story? Should you even talk about your CSR efforts? Yes, you should – but without the self-congratulatory air that so many people adopt when they do it. These days, it’s not something to gloat about – not least because you’re not the only one doing it. As always, a little humility goes a long way. You’re not trotting out your story to garner brownie points, but to show that you’re a good company to do business with. To return to the marketing and copywriting mantra, it’s not about features, but benefits. So you don’t focus on what you’ve done, but hint at how it affects the reader.
  • You care about the environment = you care about the customer.
  • You do the right thing = you’re honest, decent and above board.
  • You tell your story in a low-key way = marketing hype isn’t your style, and you don’t make overblown promises.
  • You take a big-picture view of the world = you’re not narrowly focused on closing the sale to the exclusion of everything else.
To  a hardened old cynic like me, all CSR can seem hollow, insincere and opportunistic. And yet and yet. Don’t all the best self-help gurus tell you to ‘fake it till you make it’? That the mere fact of going through the motions makes the thing feel real, to the point where it becomes second nature? So in a way, doing the right thing, even for the wrong reasons, can have a knock-on effect of doing the right things for the right reasons. If you walk the walk for long enough, soon you don’t know any other way to walk. Because there is none. Communicating it is a multi-step process:
  • You do the right thing.
  • You tell your story simply, without fanfare or boasting.
  • You focus on the how, not the what.
  • You let the reader draw their own conclusions.
You don’t need to make a virtue of a necessity. The necessity – socially responsible companies are the norm these days – magically transforms itself into a virtue all by itself. A marketing virtue, that is. And you can’t put a price on that.