Archive for the ‘greenwashing’ Category
Corporate Knights continues to mislead. Once again they’ve issued a list of the world’s “most sustainable” corporations — the Global 100 — and once again the metrics they’ve used have surprisingly little to do with what most of us mean by the word “sustainability.”
First, let’s get one thing out of the way. The organization is right to defend the fact that there are oil companies (including Enbridge, for example) and other producers of “sin” products on their list. There’s nothing in principle that says an oil company can’t, in some useful sense, be sustainable. And even if you think the fact that a company like Enbridge should be docked points because oil is a non-renewable resource, it still is a useful and interesting exercise to look at which oil companies (for example) are leading the field in terms of sustainability. So, CK is right to defend itself in this regard.
No, the problem with the Global 100 is not that they give kudos to a few unpopular companies. The real problem lies in the criteria used to measure what they refer to as “sustainability.”
Here are the 12 “key performance indicators” that get a company onto the Global 100:
- Energy productivity;
- Carbon productivity;
- Water productivity
- Waste productivity
- Innovation Capacity
- Percentage Tax Paid
- CEO to average employee pay
- Pension fund status
- Safety performance
- Employee turnover
- Leadership diversity
- Clean capitalism pay link.
These are essentially the same criteria they used (and which I critiqued) last year. The only difference is that they’ve added the bit about “Pension Fund Status,” the relevance of which may already have you wondering.
Hopefully the problem with those criteria is clear to most of you: only the first four — the first third of the criteria — actually have something to do with what most of us mean by “sustainability.” The rest are important issues, to be sure, but not relevant to the question of sustainable use of resources, or to the notion of sustainable economic growth that is compatible with environmental conservation.
Many will surely defend these criteria, and will tell me that I’m working with too narrow a conception of sustainability. Sustainability, they may say, isn’t just a narrow environmental concept. It’s about the whole People-Planet-Profits nexus. Well, certainly you can draw a diagram with boxes and arrows that shows connections of various kinds between those three. But to say that the three are one is to make so many undefended ethical, conceptual, and factual assumptions that the only result must be unnecessary confusion.
No, the Global 100 really isn’t a sustainability index, at least in the way that word is used by normal folks. It’s a complex index of sustainability, fairness, and a bunch of other positive stuff. And if you’re interested in all that stuff, why not just say so? Why bury it in a word that most people take to mean something else entirely?
The kicker, in terms of misleading language, here, is the tag-line that completes the title of the Corporate Knights list: “The Global 100: World Leaders in Clean Capitalism.” The problem here is that “Clean Capitalism” is a term Corporate Knights uses to describe what others might refer to as “conscious” capitalism, or perhaps “corporate social responsiblity.” But when most of us hear “clean,” we think “not dirty,” or “not polluting.” The implication, here, whether intended or not, is that the firms on this list are clean ones, firms unlike the dirty, polluting, earth-pillaging firms of the past.
Now, it would be one thing if Corporate Knights wanted to turn the word “sustainability” (or “clean”) into a technical term, a term of art with a special meaning for experts in the field. But that’s not what’s going on. Instead, they’re turning the word into a brand, a buzzword, and it’s a buzzword with which 100 companies are today adorning press releases. A hundred firms are today bragging about being sustainable, and are doing so with Corporate Knights’ endorsement. But “sustainable,” here, simply does not mean what you think it means.
The list is topped by pharmaco Novo Nordisk, Brazil’s Natura Cosmeticos, Norwegian energy company Statoil, the Danish biotech company Novozymes, and a Dutch company called ASML Holding, a manufacturer of photolithography machines used in the semiconductor industry. Some will surely express surprise at the list — after all, none of these companies is in an industry known for being squeaky-clean. But that’s not the real problem.
The real problem lies in Corporate Knights’ methodology. Like all similar rankings, this one has to choose some criteria. And the devil is in the details.
Here are their criteria used to determine the Global 100 — a sustainability ranking — for 2012:
#1. Energy productivity
#2. Greenhouse gas (GHG) productivity
#3. Water productivity
#4. Waste productivity
#5. Innovation Capacity
#6. % Taxes Paid
#7. CEO to Average Employee Pay
#8. Safety Productivity
#9. Employee Turnover
#10. Leadership Diversity
#11. Clean Capitalism Paylink
The problem is that more than half of these criteria — #5 through #10 — have nothing to do with sustainability. I do realize that the exact definition of “sustainability” is up for grabs at this point, and many people interpret it quite broadly. And yes, if you use your imagination and squint your eyes a bit, I guess you can conjure up a connection between “Leadership Diversity” and sustainability. But it’s a stretch. I mean, sustainability has something — something — to do with environmental issues, right?
One sustainability consultant who shall go unnamed recently told me that “sustainability doesn’t mean ‘sustainability’ any more — it just means all the good stuff that business does.” The problem is, that’s not what the term conjures in the mind of the public, the consumers of the headlines a list like this provokes. When they hear “sustainable” they think “green.” So a sustainability ranking that is only partly based on environmental performance fails in its basic functions, namely to reward companies for their green behaviour, and to educate consumers about which companies are performing well on issues that are important to them.
It’s a clever marketing strategy. But is there really such a thing as ethical oil?
In today’s National Post, the Fraser Institute‘s Mark Milke argues that there is, and that “the ethical oil tag is useful shorthand for why Canada’s oil is preferable to that extracted elsewhere.” But “preferable” is a pretty grand, global conclusion. It implies that, all told, Canada’s oil is better, ethically. And that may well be, but it’s certainly not obvious. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a patriotic Canadian, proud of my country and its accomplishments. But I’m also a critical thinker, and a critical thinker can’t accept unreflectively a conclusion that happens to coincide with his own biases. Indeed, the fact that Milke’s conclusion conforms so neatly to my own biases is a strong reason for me to look at his argument more closely.
His argument is basically that Canada’s oil is ethically preferable to the oil produced in other places, considering especially places with serious histories of violating human rights.
OK, so let’s try it out. Let’s look at a rough sketch of the perceived negative ethical implications of oil from the top 10 countries listed by oil production….
Russia — widespread political & economic corruption;
Saudi Arabia — oppressive regime; human rights abuses;
United States — capital punishment; crazy war on drugs; irresponsible financial institutions;
Iran — human rights violations; insane political leaders;
China — human rights violations;
Canada — environmental degradation; poor treatment of indigenous peoples;
Mexico — widespread corruption; ongoing drug war;
United Arab Emirates — undemocratic;
Brazil — crushing poverty; immense social inequality;
Kuwait — undemocratic; human trafficking and abuse of migrant workers.
Feel free to add your own potential points of criticism to the list. And, of course, you can add significant environmental concerns to the worries for all oil-producing nations. That goes with the turf.
Now we absolutely must not make the mistake of treating this like a checklist, or treating all of the ethical “bads” listed above as equally bad. They’re not. And the other problem with this list is that it presumes that the only alternatives are various countries’ oil. Presumably much of the criticism of tar-sand oil isn’t that it’s so environmentally-evil that it’s ethically worse than, say, Saudi oil. Rather, the criticism has to be that tar-sand oil is worse than renewable energy sources that we ought to be developing, like solar and wind and geothermal.
So while I think the “ethical oil” label is rather, well, crude, I think the people promoting that label are at least doing us the unintentional service of reminding us that it’s far from clear what counts as an ethical source of energy. (If you use slave labour to build a wind turbine, is that an ethical source of energy?) As my friend Andrew Crane points out there are many dimensions along which to evaluate the ethics of any product — including not just the intrinsic properties of the product but also things like the process of production and nation of origin. That certainly applies to oil. I just wish I could believe that the people pushing the “ethical oil” label for my country’s oil were doing it to advance the debate, rather than to score points in it.
Update: Take a hew poll on this topic, here: Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?
The ranking was released just a few days ago, as reported here by Helen Coster for Forbes: Ranking The World’s Most Sustainable Companies
The term “sustainable”–like “green” and “all-natural” before it–conveys an abstract sense of do- gooding that many companies have been happy to adopt. Corporate Knights, a Toronto-based media company, applies hard metrics to the otherwise fuzzy term, and Saturday it released its seventh-annual list of the world’s most sustainable companies….
So, what does sustainability mean, here? Toby Heaps, Corporate Knights’ editor-in-chief, says one key is to ask this question: “how are companies squeezing more wealth from the resources that they use?” So far so good — I suspect that kind of efficiency measure has something to do with what most people take “sustainability” to mean. But next Heaps strays into strange territory when he asks, in addition, “How are they doing a better job of respecting the social contract, like paying taxes or having diverse leadership?” Huh? We’ll get back to the issue of criteria in a moment. First let’s look at the rankings.
The top end of the list is dominated by global brands from the telecommunication, pharmaceutical, and energy industries (Nokia, Johnson & Johnson and Intel are all in the top 5). But an oil company takes top honours (Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil). Yes, an oil company. Now, for many people, the petroleum industry is the epitome of unsustainable business. So this will immediately raise alarms for some people. Should it? Let’s take a closer look.
The Forbes story says that Statoil topped the list “thanks in part to improvements in its water productivity.” Fair enough: water productivity (efficiency of water use) is a clear sustainability issue. But what comes next is odd. The oil company apparently did well in the ranking in part because it is “also a healthy contributor to Norway’s coffers and has a diverse board”. In other words, this oil company scored well on a sustainability ranking by doing a whole bunch of stuff that has little to nothing to do with sustainability.
For still more detail, we can look at the ranking and an explanation of the methodology behind it on the Global 100 website. According to the Methodology page, the ranking is established by looking at “environmental, social, governance (ESG) and financial data.” Already we see here a rather expansive understanding of the word “sustainability.” Next, let’s look at specific measures they used.
Some of the metrics used make perfect sense, such as energy productivity and waste productivity. Some of them, however, are hard to figure, such as CEO-to-average-worker pay ratio. Executive compensation is an interesting (and, I think, complicated) ethical issue, but how does it relate to sustainability? The detailed explanation of the various criteria offers this rationale:
A disproportionate share of compensation expenditure going to one person can lead to lower overall workforce motivation, and can also be indicative of potential governance risks, or misalignments of interests.
All of that seems true, but largely irrelevant. Sure, those risks are real, and they may (may!) have something to do with keeping the company in business. But surely that is not what anyone beyond a handful of consultants means by the word “sustainability.” When the public wonders whether Walmart’s business is “sustainable,” they are certainly not wondering whether the company’s business practices are going to let them keep chugging along.
Another mystifying criterion is “Leadership Diversity: % of women board directors.” Again, that’s an important issue; companies need to do more to get women into senior leadership positions, including on the board. But is there really a clear link — either conceptual or empirical — between having women on the board and the company being sustainable? Unfortunately, while that criterion is mentioned on the Criteria & Weights page, it is missing entirely from the more detailed explanation of those criteria (see PDF document here) so what the link is supposed to be is anyone’s guess.
Other weird criteria include “Safety Productivity”, “% tax paid” and “Innovation Capacity,” though the latter makes at least a modicum of sense. As far as I can see, fully half of the ten criteria used have no clear link to sustainability. And given that all criteria are given equal weight in the Global 100 methodology, that means the ranking is actually only half about sustainability, and half about other stuff.
Now, I’ve been critical of the term “sustainability” before (see “Sustainability is Unustainable.”) A lot of what I’ve said before has to do with confusion over the meaning of the term, and the resulting difficulty in measuring and tracking companies’ performance in this area. I think the Global 100 ranking ends up providing a wonderful case in point.
But the real problem, here, is that the kind of sustainability measure instantiated by the Global 100 profits directly from the confusion over the meaning of the term “sustainability.” (And I do mean “profits” — Corporate Knights is a for-profit organization, as presumably are the research firms that helped develop the Global 100 and the vast majority of sustainability consultants who help companies preen for such rankings.) Now, I don’t actually have anything against profits, and I’m not impugning anyone’s intentions. My point is that the only reason this particular set of measures can be thought to add up to “sustainability” is that the term itself is ambiguous and means different things to different people.
What’s really being measured here is a broad range of indicators having to do with all kinds of things. Again, it includes “environmental, social, governance…and financial data.” And it’s all important stuff. So the Global 100 ranking really does tell us something important (but vague) about the companies listed. But what is announced is that ‘these companies are sustainable.’ What does that mean to the public? Environment. So the list implies that these companies are environmental good guys. The result: greenwash.
So, what’s the public to do? Maybe all the public can do is realize that what sustainability consultants and gurus mean by “sustainability” has relatively little to do with what they mean by that word.
Can religion save the soul of the world’s economic system? What does religion have to do with ethics? In particular, what does religion have to do with business ethics? There’s certainly no necessary connection. You’ll notice an utter lack of theological arguments in this blog, for instance. But many people see a connection, and perhaps a necessary one.
For example, see this piece by Dan Gilgoff, for CNN’s “Belief” Blog: How Davos found God
…Since the banking crisis shook global markets more than two years ago and contributed to a worldwide economic slump, the annual Davos summit has invited dozens of religious and spiritual leaders to hash out issues like business ethics and the morality of markets in the company of presidents and corporate titans….
This worries me for two reasons.
First is that religious leaders have no particular expertise in the questions at hand. One clergyman quoted in the story says the key question is “how do you embed values in the culture of companies in a way that would change behaviors?” Good question, but it’s not one about which most religious leaders are likely to have any real insight. Most, for example, won’t know much about the workings of corporations, or about corporate culture, or about (for example) what the criminological literature says about the real causes of wrongdoing. Sure, talking about values can be a good thing. But there’s no good evidence that religious values, or organized religion as a way of inculcating values, does anything in particular to make people more ethical. And certainly there’s no reason to believe that “40 minutes of guided meditation” is going to play any role at all in fixing the problems faced by the world’s economy.
My second worry is that the inclusion of religious leaders is a distraction, a way of deflecting criticism by including a few dozen people who a large portion of the public are likely to associate with the idea of being a good person. It’s symbolic. It’s a way of signalling to the public that the business world really is concerned about doing the right thing — without engaging anyone who actually has the relevant expertise. It’s a feel-good move. It’s like greenwashing, but with religion rather than environmentalism as the focal distraction.
I was tempted to call this blog entry “Sustainability is Stupid,” but I changed my mind because that’s needlessly inflammatory. And really, the problem isn’t that the concept itself is stupid, though certainly I’ve seen some stupid uses of the term. But the real problem is that it’s too broad for some purposes, too narrow for others, and just can’t bear the weight that many people want to put on it. The current focus on sustainability as summing up everything we want to know about doing the right thing in business is, for lack of a better word, unsustainable.
Anyway, I am tired of sustainability. And not just because, as Ad Age recently declared, it’s one of the most jargon-y words of the year. Which it is. But the problems go beyond that.
Here are just a few of the problems with sustainability:
1) Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, not everything unsustainable is bad. Oil is unsustainable, technically speaking. It will eventually get scarce, and eventually run out, for all intents and purposes. But it’s also a pretty nifty product. It works. It’s cheap. And it’s not going away soon. So producing it isn’t evil, and using it isn’t evil, even if (yes, yes) it would be better if we used less. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of oil. It would be great if cars could run on something more plentiful and less polluting, like sunshine or water or wind. But in the meantime, oil is an absolutely essential commodity. Unsustainable, but quite useful.
2) There are ways for things to be bad other than being unsustainable. Cigarettes are a stupid, bad product. They’re addictive. They kill people. But are they sustainable? You bet. The tobacco industry has been going strong for a few hundred years now. If that’s not sustainability, I don’t know what is. To say that the tobacco industry isn’t sustainable is like saying the dinosaur way of life wasn’t sustainable because dinosaurs only ruled the earth for, like, a mere 150 million years. So, it’s a highly sustainable industry, but a bad one.
3) There’s no such thing as “sustainable” fish or “sustainable” forests or “sustainable” widgets, if by “sustainable” you mean as opposed to the other, “totally unsustainable” kind of fish or forests or widgets. It’s not a binary concept, but it gets sold as one. A fishery (or a forest or whatever) is either more or less sustainable. So to label something “sustainable” is almost always greenwash. Feels nice, but meaningless.
4) We’re still wayyyy unclear on what the word “sustainable” means. And I’m not talking about fine academic distinctions, here. I’m talking big picture. As in, what is the topic of discussion? For some people, for example, “sustainability” is clearly an environmental concept. As in, can we sustain producing X at the current rate without running out of X or out of the raw materials we need to make X? Or can we continue producing Y like this, given the obvious and unacceptable environmental damage it does? For others, though — well, for others, “sustainability” is about something much broader: something economic, environmental, and social. This fundamental distinction reduces dramatically the chances of having a meaningful conversation about this topic.
5) Many broad uses of the term “sustainable” are based on highly questionable empirical hypotheses. For example, some people seem to think that “sustainable” isn’t just an environmental notion because, after all, how can your business be sustainable if you don’t treat your workers well? And how can you sustain your place in the market if you don’t produce a high-quality product? Etc., etc. But of course, there are lots of examples of companies treating employees and customers and communities badly, and doing so quite successfully, over time-scales that make any claim that such practices are “unsustainable” manifestly silly. (See #2 above re the tobacco industry for an example.)
6) We have very, very little what is actually sustainable, environmentally or otherwise. Sure, there are clear cases. But for plenty of cases, the correct response to a claim of sustainability is simply “How do you know?” We know a fair bit, I think, about what kinds of practices tend to be more, rather than less, environmentally sustainable. But given the complexities of ecosystems, and the complexities of production processes and business supply chains, tracing all the implications of a particular product or process in order to declare it “sustainable” is very, very challenging. I conjecture that there are far, far more claims of “sustainability” than there are instances where the speaker knows what he or she is talking about.
7) Sometimes, it’s right to do the unsustainable thing. For example, would you kill the last breeding pair of an endangered species (say, bluefin tuna, before long) to feed a starving village, if that was your only way of doing so? I would. Sure, there’s room for disagreement, but I think I could provide a pretty good argument that in such a case, the exigencies of the immediate situation would be more weighty, morally, than the long-term consequences. Now, hopefully such terrible choices are few. But the point is simply to illustrate that sustainability is not some sort of over-arching value, some kind of trump card that always wins the hand.
8 ) The biggest, baddest problem with sustainability is that, like “CSR” and “accountability” and other hip bits of jargon, it’s a little wee box that people are trying to stuff full of every feel-good idea they ever hoped to apply to the world of business. So let’s get this straight: there are lots and lots of ways in which business can act rightly, or wrongly. And not all of them can be expressed in terms of the single notion of “sustainability.”
Now, look. Of course I don’t have anything against sustainability per se. I like the idea of running fisheries in a way that is more, rather than less, sustainable. I like the idea of sustainable agriculture (i.e., agriculture that does less, rather than more, long-term damage to the environment and uses up fewer, rather than more, natural resources). But let’s not pretend that sustainability is the only thing that matters, or that it’s the only word we need in our vocabulary when we want to talk about doing the right thing in business.
Do higher standards apply to advertising by industry than apply to advertising by nonprofits? Is it fair to fight fire with fire? Do two wrongs make a right?
See this item, by Kevin Libin, writing for National Post: Yogourt fuels oil-sands war.
Here’s what is apparently intolerable to certain environmental groups opposed to Alberta’s oil sands industry: an advertisement that compares the consistency of tailings ponds to yogourt.
Here’s what is evidently acceptable to certain environmental groups opposed to Alberta’s oil sands industry: an advertisement warning that a young biologist working for Devon Energy named Megan Blampin will “probably die from cancer” from her work, and that her family will be paid hush money to keep silent about it….
It’s worth reading the rest of the story to get the details. Basically, the question is about the standards that apply to advertising by nonprofit or activist groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. But it’s also more specifically about whether it’s OK for such groups to get personal by including in their ads individual employees of the companies they are targeting.
A few quick points:
- Many people think companies deserve few or no protections against attacks. Some people, for example, think companies should not even be able to sue for slander or libel. Likewise, corporations (and other organizations) do not enjoy the same regulatory protections and ethical standards that protect individual humans when they are the subjects of university-based research. Corporations may have, of necessity, certain legal rights, but not the same list (and not as extensive a list) as the list of rights enjoyed by human persons. So people are bound to react differently when activist groups attack (or at least name) individual human persons, as opposed to “merely” attacking corporations.
- Complicating matters is the fact that the original ads (by Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, or CAPP) themselves featured those same individual employees. So the employees had presumably already volunteered to be put in the spotlight. But of course, they volunteered to be put in the spotlight in a particular way.
- For many people, the goals of the organizations in question will matter. So the fact that Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are trying literally to save the world (rather than aiming at something more base, like filthy lucre) might be taken as earning them a little slack. In other words, some will say that the ends justify the means. On the other hand, the particular near-term goals of those organizations are not shared by everyone. And not everyone thinks that alternative goals (like making a profit, or like keeping Canadians from freezing to death in winter) are all that bad.
- Others might say that, being organizations explicitly committed to doing good, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club ought to be entirely squeaky-clean. If they can’t be expected to keep their noses clean, who can? On the other hand, some might find that just a bit precious. Getting the job done is what matters, and it’s not clear that an organization with noble goals wins many extra points for conducting itself in a saintly manner along the way.
(I’ve blogged about the tar sands and accusations of greenwashing, here: Greenwashing the Tar Sands.)
Thanks to LW for sending me this story.
- “Oil companies should put their profits to good use.”
- “It’s time oil companies get behind the development of renewable energy.”
- “Oil companies should support the communities they’re a part of.”
Here’s the press release announcing the new campaign: Chevron Launches New Global Advertising Campaign: ‘We Agree’. There’s also a YouTube channel where you can see the TV ads.
Many people will detect a whiff of greenwashing, here. And you don’t have to be much of a cynic to be somewhat skeptical. Back in 2001, another oil company, British Petroleum, claimed to be turning over a new leaf when it branded itself as just BP, which it suggested stood for “Beyond Petroleum.” We all know how that turned out.
The We Agree website of course features all kinds of nifty-sounding illustrations of Chevron’s commitment to being socially responsible. It’s mostly the usual kinds of stuff. But what’s interesting here, philosophically, is the attempt to point to the underlying agreement on values. And (this campaign aside) I do think it’s important for people on different sides of any given debate to understand just how much they probably do agree on, at the level of basic values. Now, if we could just agree on how those shared values ought to be implemented, we would really be getting somewhere.
(Note: as I blogged last night, this Chevron campaign got spoofed by pranksters who issued their own version of the Chevron press-release, pointing to a very-convincing-but-fake campaign website. I was temporarily fooled, myself. You can find out about the spoof via the NYT‘s Media Decoder blog: Pranksters Lampoon Chevron Ad Campaign.)
Andrew’s new book, The Authenticity Hoax, is excellent. I interviewed Andrew recently, about the implications the issues discussed in his book have for a range of topics in Business Ethics.
Chris MacDonald: Your new book, The Authenticity Hoax, is about the way our pursuit of authenticity is in many ways the pursuit of a mirage, and you argue that the pursuit of it is ultimately not just futile, but destructive. You say that one element of that — or is it a result? — is a lack of faith in the market. Presumably that plays out, in part, in a perception that business quite generally is unethical, on some level. Is that one of the deleterious effects of the pursuit of authenticity?
Andrew Potter: According to the theory I offer in the book, the quest for the authentic is largely a reaction to four aspects of the modern world: secularism, liberalism, technology, and the market economy. And I think you’re right, that hostility towards the market is probably the most significant of these. Why is that? That’s a whole other book! Though I think something like the following is at work:
First, markets are inherently alienating, to the extent to which they replace more gregarious and social forms of interaction and mutual benefit (e.g. sharing or gift economies, barter, and so on) with a very impersonal form of exchange. The second point is that the market economy is profit driven. This bothers people for a number of reasons, the most salient of which is that it seems to place greed at the forefront of human relations. Additionally, the quest for “profit” is seen as fundamentally amoral, which is why — as you point out — the mere fact of running a business or working in the private sector is considered unethical. Finally, you can add all the concerns about sustainability and the environment that the market is believed to exacerbate.
The upshot is that we have a deep cultural aversion to buying things on the open market. We think we live in a consumer society, but we don’t. We live in an anti-consumer society, which is why we feel the need to “launder” our consumption through a moral filter. That, I think, is why so much authenticity-seeking takes the form of green- or socially conscious consumerism.
CM: Claims to authenticity are a standard marketing gimmick at this point. In The Authenticity Hoax, you argue that authenticity isn’t the same as truth. Authenticity has more to do with being true to some essence, some deeper self. It strikes me that that makes for some very slippery advertising, including lots of claims that can’t be backed up, but can’t be disproven either. Is authenticity the ultimate marketing gimmick that way?
AP: Absolutely. What advertising and politics have in common is that they are both “bullshit” in the philosophical sense of term (made popular by Harry Frankfurt). What characterizes bullshit is that it isn’t “false”, it is that it isn’t even in the truth-telling game. That is why I think Stephen Colbert was dead on when he coined the term “truthiness” to refer to political discourse — he essentially means that it is bullshit.
What is interesting is that authenticity has the same structure as bullshit, in the following way: from Rousseau to Oprah, the mark of the authentic is not that it reflects from objective truth in the world or fact of the matter. Rather, the authentic is that which is true to how I feel at a given moment, or how things seem to me. As long as the story I tell rings true, that’s authentic.
And that fits in well with advertising, since advertising is all about telling a story. Everyone knows that most advertising is bullshit — for example, that drinking Gatorade won’t make you play like Jordan, or that buying a fancy car won’t make you suddenly appealing to hot women. But what a good brand does is deliver a consistent set of values, a promise or story of some sort, which fits with the idealized narrative of our lives, the story that seems true to us. That is why branding is the quintessential art form in the age of authenticity. Bullshit in, authenticity out!
CM: There’s an irony, of course, in the fact that so many companies are making claims to authenticity in their advertising and PR, since for most people the very term “PR” implies a kind of spin that is the exact opposite of authenticity. But that apparent irony echoes a theme from your previous book, The Rebel Sell (a.k.a. Nation of Rebels), doesn’t it? In that book, you (and co-author Joe Heath) argued that all supposedly counter-cultural movements and themes — things like skateboarding, hip-hop, environmentalism, and now add authenticity — are bound to be co-opted by marketers as soon as those ideas have gathered enough cultural salience. Is that part of what dooms the individual consumer’s pursuit of authenticity?
AP: Yes, that’s exactly right. Chapter four of my book (“Conspicuous Authenticity”) is a deliberate attempt to push the argument from the Rebel Sell ahead a bit, to treat “authenticity” as the successor value (and status good) to “cool”.
We have to be a bit careful though about using the term “co-optation”, because it isn’t clear who is co-opting whom. Both cool-hunting and authenticity-seeking are driven not by marketers but by consumer demand, in particular by the desire for status or distinction. And in both cases, the very act of marketing something as “cool” or as “authentic” undermines its credibility. Authenticity is like charisma — if you have to say you have it, you don’t.
That doesn’t mean marketers can’t exploit the public’s desire for the authentic, but it does mean they have to be careful about the pitch they employ; it can’t be too self-conscious. We all know that “authentic Chinese food” just means chicken balls and chow mein, which is why I actually think that things that are explicitly marketed as “authentic” are mostly harmless. It’s when you when you come across words like “sustainable”, or “organic,” or “local” or “artisanal”, you know you’re in the realm of the truly status-conscious authentic.
CM: I’ve got a special interest in ‘greenwashing.’ It occurs to me now that accusations of greenwashing have something to do with authenticity. When a company engages in greenwashing, they’re typically not lying — they’re not claiming to have done something they haven’t done. They’re telling the truth about something ‘green’ they’ve done, but they’re using that truth to hide some larger truth about dismal environmental performance. When companies greenwash, they’re using the truth to cover up their authentic selves, if you will. Do you think the public is particularly disposed to punish what we might think of as ‘crimes against authenticity?’
AP: I’m not sure. It is certainly true that in extreme cases of corporate bad faith the public reacts badly. The case of BP is a good example; as many people have pointed out, its “Beyond Petroleum” mantra is a very tarnished brand right now, and it is doubtful they’ll be able to renew its polish.
But at the same time, I don’t see any great evidence that the public as a whole is disposed to punish companies for greenwashing. Actually, I think the exact opposite is the case: I think the public is very much disposed towards buying into the weakest of greenwash campaigns. The reason, I think, goes back to the point I made earlier about most of us being fairly ashamed of living in a consumer society. Yet at the same time we like buying stuff, especially stuff that makes us feel good about ourselves and morally virtuous. Even the most half-witted greenwashing campaign is often enough for consumers to give themselves “permission” to buy something they really want.
CM: Let’s talk about a couple of product categories for which claims to authenticity are frequently made.
First, food. You argue that much of the current fascination with organic food, locally-grown food, etc., is best understood as the result of status-seeking. So the idea is basically that food elites start out looking down on everyone who doesn’t eat organic. But then as soon as organic becomes relatively wide-spread, suddenly eating organic doesn’t make you special, and so the food elite has to switch to eating local, or eating raw, or whatever else to separate themselves from the masses. And I find that analysis pretty compelling, myself. But a lot of devotees of organic and local foods are going to reject that analysis, and object that they, at least, are eating organic or local or whatever for the right reasons, not for the kind of status-seeking reasons you suggest. And surely some of them are sincere and are introspecting accurately. Does your analysis allow for that possibility?
AP: Sure. The key point is that these aren’t exclusive motivations. In fact, they can often work in lockstep: You feel virtuous eating organic, but you also want to feel more virtuous than your neighbour (moral one-upmanship is still one-upmanship, after all). And so you try to out-do her by switching to a local diet. And when she matches you and goes local too, you ratchet up the stakes by moving more of your consumption to artisanal goods (e.g. small-batch olive oil, handmade axes, self-butchered swine, and so-on).
And this would be a good thing if there were any evidence that these moves actually had the social and environmental benefits that their proponents claim for them. But unfortunately, the evidence is – at best – mixed; the more likely truth is that the one-upmanship angle has completely crowded out the moral calculations.
The more general point is that we need to stop assuming that something that gives us pleasure, or feeds our spiritual needs, will also be morally praiseworthy and environmentally beneficial. That assumption is one of the most tenacious aspects of the authenticity hoax, and it is one that we have no reason to make. There are good and bad practices at the local level, and artisanal consumption has its costs and benefits. Same thing for conventional food production — there are good things and bad things about it. It would be nice if the categories of good versus bad mapped cleanly on to the categories of local versus industrial, but they simply don’t. The belief that they do is nothing more than wishful thinking.
CM: What about alternative therapies? Much of the draw of those products — and at least some of their marketing — seems to revolve around authenticity. People who are attracted to alternative products seem to want to reject modern medicine, which they find alienating, in favour of what they perceive as something more authentic. Now most critics of alternative therapies such as homeopathy primarily object that there just isn’t good evidence that those therapies actually work. But your own analysis provides a further kind of criticism, rooted in the way that those who seek ‘authenticity’ via alternative medicine are engaged in what is more generally an unhealthy rejection of modernity. Is that right?
AP: There is a lot to dislike about modernity, and my argument is not that we should just suck it all up and live with it. My point is rather that modernity is about tradeoffs, and that we need to accept that for the most part, the tradeoffs have been worth making. Yes, some things of value have been lost, but on the whole I think it’s been worth it.
But if there is one part of the pre-modern world that is well lost, it’s the absence of evidence-based medicine. Yet for some bizarre reason, the longer we live and the healthier we get, the more people become convinced that we are poisoning ourselves, and that modern medicine is not the solution to our woes, but part of the cause.
The turn away from the benefits of modern medicine is one of the most disturbing and pernicious aspects of the authenticity hoax. My book has been interpreted by many as an attack on “the left”, but it perplexes me that things like naturopathy, anti-vaccination campaigns, and belief in the health benefits of raw milk are considered “left wing” or “progressive” ideals. As far as I’m concerned, this is part of a highly reactionary political agenda that rejects many of the most unimpeachable benefits of the modern world. We know that naturopathy and homeopathy is a fraud; we know that vaccines don’t cause autism and that public vaccination is the one of the greatest public health initiatives ever; we know that pasteurization has saved countless lives over the years.
When British Petroleum rebranded itself a few years ago as just “BP,” it adopted the tagline “Beyond Petroleum,” in an attempt to signal a commitment to new energy technologies, and to new ways of doing business.
Of course, there were skeptics. Back in 2000, CorpWatch had this to say about the rebranding:
BP’s re-branding as the “Beyond Petroleum” company is perhaps the ultimate co-optation of environmentalists’ language and message. Even apart from the twisting of language, BP’s suggestion that producing more natural gas is somehow akin to global leadership is preposterous. Make that Beyond Preposterous.
So, the accusation was basically one of greenwash — essentially, an attempt to mask a lousy environmental record with a thin patina of environmental commitment. Had I commented back in 2000, I might have suggested that it was too early, then, to confidently accuse the company of greenwash. Sometimes companies do undergo substantial changes — changes in policy, in culture, and in leadership. The worry then is that if we criticize or mock a company’s stated intention to turn over a new-and-greener leaf, we may actually be doing more harm than good by taking the wind out of the sails of what might actually be positive change.
OK, fast-forward to 2010, to the biggest oil spill in U.S. history and to the Center for Public Integrity stating that BP accounts for “97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors over the past three years”.
Greenwashing? Case closed, as far as public opinion of BP is concerned. And perhaps more importantly, it now becomes just that much harder for the public to take seriously any big company’s claim that it really wants to improve its environmental performance.