The fashion industry has repeatedly come under fire for its negative effects on the environment. With heightened attention towards the climate crisis and scandals highlighting the industry’s social shortcomings (Rana Plaza, 2013), more and more ‘native’ sustainable fashion brands have emerged. However, parallel, we witness a trend towards ever-increasing consumerism. Frequently, Black Friday is seen as the epitome of consumerism which raises the question: How do sustainable fashion brands approach the biggest shopping day of the year – Black Friday – and how do consumers perceive these campaigns?
We reviewed Black Friday Instagram posts by self-claimed sustainable fashion labels and found they can be conceptualized along two axes: (1) the level to which consumption is encouraged / discouraged, and (2) the degree of action taken by a brand to express its commitment to sustainability. This conceptualization accounts for existing societal marketing strategies, particularly Demarketing, Green Marketing, and Cause-related Marketing. On the one hand, the brand Raeburn closes its shops and urges consumers to use Black Friday to repair their clothing rather than buying new items (Demarketing). On the other hand, the brand People Tree promotes 30% off everything claiming that consumers should “add some green to [their] wardrobe” (Green Marketing).
Business-as-usual, a revolution, or planet-saving purchases – what is actually authentic?
By interviewing 20 consumers, we found that they judge authenticity by inspecting various cues that are leveraged to identify authenticity drivers. For example, donating to WWF (Cause-related Marketing) yielded legitimacy for TwoThirds’ Black Friday campaign. Authenticity is a complex concept – it is multidimensional, subjective, dynamic and socially constructed. Multidimensionality implies that one cannot answer “what is authentic?” precisely; it is an interplay of different attributes. In our case, respondents described an advertisement as authentic when it was credible, relatable, congruent, original and/or impactful. Next, subjectivity means that what is authentic for one person is not necessarily authentic for another. Influential consumer characteristics are a person’s general scepticism towards advertising, level of environmental concern, and understanding of sustainability, resp. do we simply need less- or better/greener consumption to mitigate climate change?
“and it’s kind of a contradiction: ‘Please shop to help the planet’ and I think you can’t shop and help the planet at the same time. So less or no consumption is at all times the best option” (Consumer 1)
“you’re using capitalism to make the world a little bit better. And I think in my eyes, that’s a good strategy to go for” (Consumer 2)
Third, authenticity perceptions can change over time, for example upon new information. Last, authenticity does not exist as a stand-alone concept but is always sensitive to societal changes.
What does this imply for marketers of sustainable brands?
Black Friday is a dynamic context in which brands have to actively reflect on their communication strategy and respective consumer authenticity perceptions. Consequently, no communication strategy shows clear advantages or can be labeled ‘most authentic’. We advise brands to reflect on:
Their standpoint regarding Black Friday
The needs of their target group
The statement they want to make on Black Friday
The tone they want to adopt in their campaign
Sustainable brands increasingly embrace creative ways to distance themselves from the traditional Black Friday, e.g. by closing shops, ‘selling rubbish’ or even raising prices. It remains unclear, however, whether these forms of brand activism reflect a brand’s honest opinion or are employed as a tool to stand out.
We also observe brands who are holding their customers responsible: on Black Friday 2020, Armed Angels let buyers choose between a higher discount or rainforest protection. After Black Friday, the brand revealed that the majority of their customers had chosen the higher discount, which raises the question:
Can consumers be held responsible for making more mindful purchase decisions or is increased action by companies and governments needed?
Upon stating its disappointment about the outcome, followers accused the brand of shaming their customers for choosing higher discounts. This translates to another relevant consideration for sustainable fashion labels – choosing the right tone. While radical messaging conveys urgency and appeals to environmentally concerned consumers, others feel opposed to it and, instead, want to be involved in dialogues. Again, this shows that when it comes to Black Friday, there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution – rather, brands should take time to think about their values and how they can make a meaningful difference on Black Friday 2021.
Throughout the interviews in our study, multiple consumers shared with us how they were inspired by campaigns of sustainable brands and respectively questioned their purchase decisions. This demonstrates that sustainable brands’ communications can actually exceed Black Friday and have lasting effects – not only on their brands’ perceived authenticity but also on our planet’s future.
About the Authors
Nina Böntgen is a recent graduate from MSc Brand and Communications Management program at Copenhagen Business School. Next to her studies, she was actively engaged as team lead and board member of oikos Copenhagen, a student initiative driving change towards greater sustainability. She’s happy to share further insights or engage in discussions on the post or the broader thesis (how sustainable brands navigate authenticity and greenwashing) via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Linkedin.
Sara Derse is a recent graduate of the Msc Brand and Communications Management program at Copenhagen Business School. Fascinated by the topics of consumer psychology and purpose branding, she was involved in the sustainability-focused student initiative oikos as a Project Manager. She is happy to discuss her thesis (consumer perceptions of fashion brands with a purpose centred around sustainability) in further detail via email (email@example.com) or Linkedin.
Meike Janssen is Associate Professor for Sustainable Consumption and Behavioural Studies, CBS Sustainability, Copenhagen Business School. Her research focuses on consumer behaviour in the field of sustainable consumption, in particular on consumers’ decision-making processes related to sustainable products and the drivers of and barriers to sustainable product choices.
According to a recent analysis by Datareportal, the number of active social media users grew globally by 13.2% from January 2020 to January 2021, which means that as of January 2021, there are 4.2 billion active social media users. With the increasing use of social media, it only makes sense that important discussions are moving to these platforms. This is especially seen during political elections, but social media are also becoming some of the most important platforms to discuss issues such as gender equality, racism, and climate change. However, while we have seen the potentials of social media for raising awareness about these issues, it is still unclear whether social media are suitable platforms for such discussions.
Throughout my research, I investigated the climate change debate on Twitter, and I want to highlight two important patterns that I found, each illustrating some of the potentials and challenges with the use of social media to discuss global challenges.
On the one hand, I found that the debates on social media platforms are characterized by equality and inclusiveness. It is common knowledge that everyone has a voice on social media, and anyone can contribute to a debate, but simply having the opportunity to contribute does not mean that everyone will have an impact.
Interestingly, what I found was that not only can anyone contribute – everyone can have an impact on the debate and affect how issues are discussed.
This both includes users with less than 100 followers and minority voices such as climate change skepticism. Seeing that even smaller users and minority voices can have an impact is particularly interesting on social media, where it has been argued that it is only the “popular” accounts, influencers, or central actors that shape the debate. Naturally, this does not mean that everyone will influence the debate, but it means that anyone can, which I see as an important part of creating a good place for discussing global challenges.
On the other hand, I found that the use of Twitter to discuss climate change rarely included ongoing dialogue.
There is very little exchange of opinions between two participants – instead, participants share their thoughts by engaging in broader conversations, e.g., by using specific hashtags or by mentioning central figures. In other words, what I found was that participants engage with an imagined audience, not directly with others.
Sometimes a discussion unfolds in the replies to a tweet or in the comments to a Facebook post, but the vast majority of contributions to debates about global issues are more about voicing an opinion, e.g., through retweeting, not back-and-forth dialogue between participants. This means that while most participants actively contribute to the debate, there is rarely any direct response to these contributions, which is a critical challenge, as I see some form of back-and-forth exchange of opinions as an integral part of good discussions.
So, are social media platforms good places for debates about global challenges?
Well, yes and no – and naturally dependent on how you define a “good” debate. The inclusiveness and equality are great, and this is unparalleled compared to offline arenas that are limited by time and space, thus highlighting the potential for social media to empower citizens, both in their role as ordinary citizens and as consumers or activists that challenge corporate behavior. On the other hand, the distinct lack of ongoing, reciprocal exchange of information or dialogue is a critical challenge, highlighting issues with using social media to debate global challenges. This poses an interesting puzzle.
The lack of dialogue suggests that we need to be careful about using social media platforms to discuss global challenges.
Still, the use of social media to discuss global challenges is rapidly growing. Hence, we cannot disregard the importance of social media, but perhaps we can re-think their role in global discussions.
I suggest that we move away from the expectation that social media platforms, by themselves, cultivate high-quality debates and instead see them as platforms that mainly inform and develop participants’ views. Hence, rather than providing platforms for dialogue, social media contributes to global debates by providing platforms where participants can become informed and better prepared for subsequent discussions – discussions that often unfold outside social media platforms. In other words, while social media, by themselves, are imperfect places for debates about global challenges, their role in informing participants, including both citizens, corporations, and politicians, illustrates that social media are a critical part of a more extensive media system, and we should not disregard their importance in debates about global challenges.
A word of caution
However, if we accept that social media mainly serves to inform participants, we also have to consider that some potentials can become challenges. Specifically, the equality found in the debate can become a serious issue.
Without the ongoing dialogue, we miss opportunities to contest and challenge disruptive voices such as climate change skepticism.
Hence, while climate change skepticism, in an ideal and high-quality debate, could be beneficial by inspiring others to improve their arguments and refine opinions, the lack of dialogue on social media means that such voices are not contested and are not inspiring others to improve their arguments.
This is even more important with the increasing polarization we see on social media and highlights that if social media mainly serves to inform participants’ views, there is a greater responsibility on us as participants. Specifically, we still need to seek out these opposing opinions. Even though it might be futile to engage with those opinions, seeking out these opposing views may still inspire us to improve our arguments and, in some cases, even inspire us to refine our own opinions and ideas.
About the Author
Daniel Lundgaard is a PhD Fellow at the Department of Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School. His research investigates how communication on social media (e.g. the use of emotions, certain forms of framing or linguistic features) shapes the ways we discuss and think about organizational and societal responsibilities.
One of the most overlooked and yet promising agents in the fight against climate change and towards realizing a circular society is the maker movement – a cultural trend that was founded on a simple premise: ordinary people manufacturing themselves what they need.
In the previous article, a glimpse of the transformative potential of democratized production for reaching the pressing societal, environmental and economic goals was attempted. The maker revolution, facilitated by the technological collaborative manufacturing capabilities can help citizens with getting access to advanced fabrication tools, skills and knowledge, to meet their own needs, reduce their carbon footprint, while creating new entrepreneurial opportunities for them and their community. For this potential to be realized, it is arguably increasingly important to understand how and why people become makers.
No movement can be successful, no community can be effective without engaging, growing, and sustaining its member base.
This was the organizing idea in the previous article. The empirical results from the Pop-Machina project were presented in overview to show the key motives, barriers and driving forces behind the decision to support and be involved in making. In this follow-up note, we complement this baseline with the next step: what can be done to act upon this knowledge.
We draw this time insights from another running EU project – iProduce. Two large scale studies collected data from regular citizens, makers and manufacturers around Europe and the synthesis of the main quantitative results is taking place to compile some clear and actionable recommendations on how to engage with makers, existing and potential ones. The recommendations below are a preview of the upcoming report on the full findings, so it should be treated as work-in-progress snapshot.
Recommendation 1: Clearly communicate the culture of the community
On the one hand, many new makers seem to be driven by ecological and community progress beliefs and attitudes. The majority of people believe that makerspaces can make a big difference. On the other, respondents reported a lack of information with regard to the exact makerspaces’ scope and actions. Awareness about the maker-movement and its mission and benefits should not be considered a given, yet the alignment can make a considerable (and oftentimes ignored) difference in engagement. Community development and team building should be heavily promoted as in most makers, collaboration with like-minded peers is of highest priorities.
Recommendation 2: Encourage direct knowledge sharing: virtual training and skills exchange
Exchanging knowledge and gaining access to dedicated trainings is very important for makers. Such facilitations can take place digitally in which case users would expect to increase their knowledge and skills. Training could be targeted either to support a specific business venture, a creative project already underway, or for the primary purpose of gaining competencies for later use. Support in terms of direct knowledge sharing and mentorship, peer to peer online learning could be an additional option to allow existing technicians and experts to occasionally serve as mentors and advisors rather than teachers in platform-developed projects.
Recommendation 3: Support matchmaking and professional networking
Participation in makerspaces opens up new horizons, enabling makers to reach out to a wider network which could also yield more professional opportunities. Or at least this is what the majority of the respondents expect. Makers and consumers want to be empowered, not only to depict their ideas for new products but to also be able to find expertise and manufacturing capabilities to implement them. Matchmaking services are deemed essential and at the same time, the analysis of existing roles and collaborations can set the ground for new synergies to be established and new opportunities to be identified.
Recommendation 4: Diversity, inclusiveness, accessibility and empowerment
Makers tend to care a big deal about accessibility; they want to see action to involve groups which are underrepresented in the maker movement, such as women, elderly, low socioeconomic status groups or people with disabilities. They stress the importance of a respectful, inclusive and supportive culture, the unwarranted genderisation of tasks/interests and the need for more female role models in the social manufacturing world. While the maker movement has unique cultural elements, these are all cemented on the principles of diversity empowerment and unfettered access.
Obviously, this list is not exhaustive. There are still so many lessons to learn, angles to explore, and diverse experiences and stories to be shared and studied that one should not treat this as anything more than a humble start. The empirical nature of these insights provides some needed confidence to these results, but as is often the case with self-reported data and online data collection methods, there are some limitations to the transferability and generalizability/representativeness of these results. Nonetheless, the people working in iProduce have put considerable effort to help practitioners, policy makers and makerspace managers better reach out to the maker base. These stakeholders sometimes must face an uphill battle, especially in the covid-era, in keeping things afloat, exploring different tools, triggers and business models. One can hope that such insights can still be useful or bring up more discussion about the way forward.
Assistant Prof. Efthymios Altsitsiadis, PhD (male) is a behavioural economist with a mind for interdisciplinary research. A user-centricity enthusiast, Efthymios is set to help provide evidence-based answers to some of the most persistent and evasive behavioural questions in a variety of areas like sustainability, health, energy and mobility. His Phd was in decision support systems and he is currently teaching Machine Learning and Digital Behaviour at CBS. He conducts research in collaborative production and circular economy, in advanced technological agents (smart apps, avatars, chat-bot services) and has worked as a social scientist in several cross-disciplinary research projects.
We are arguably living in an era of visibility in which our communicative interactions with others are accessible to the gaze of third parties. Does this mean we understand our fellow beings, our organizations and our governments better? Well, not quite and maybe not as expected.
We tend to assume that we understand what we see. Yet, we see a lot that we do not grasp.
Increased visibility is often taken to represent an increase in transparency. Thus, for example, it is commonplace to associate organizational transparency with visibility management. Many writers use the notions interchangeably as if we automatically comprehend what we see. Such assumption is misguided. Although transparency has come to refer to a host of different qualities and activities, its original and fundamental promise is to increase knowledge and insight and, this way, reduce manipulation, ensure fairness and avoid power abuse (see previous blog). Visibility on its part merely signifies the ability to identify by the eye.
Although it intuitively makes sense to treat these terms as related, especially because they both invoke an ocular metaphor, they differ significantly in terms of the depth of the involved perception. Transparency, in spite of its complexities, absurdities and unexpected consequences when implemented in practice, continues to invoke the ideal of some deeper understanding. What is visible, by contrast, may arouse our attention only in passing without producing any further insight. The conflation of the two therefore weakens our approach to transparency and reduce society’s ability to develop more sophisticated transparency practices.
Visibility is not the same as transparency and may not enhance understanding and insight.
‘Visibility’ has several related meanings, including the state of being visible, the ability to see or be seen under certain conditions, and the distance at which a given object can be identified with the unaided eye, also known as visual range. In all these senses, visibility is related to observation and suggests that the object in question is accessible to the eye and can be distinguished more or less clearly from its surroundings. While technological developments have turned visibility into a mediated quality freed from the temporal and spatial constraints of the here and now, the visible still refers to “that which is perceptible by the sense of sight”, perhaps augmented by other senses.
What is perceptible to the eye is heavily shaped by contexts, such as norms, cultures and social structures.
In everyday usage, the notion of visibility is frequently invoked in a more abstract sense that combines sight with understanding. Notions such as discover, observe, notice, recognize, monitor, viewpoint, or perspective, for example, all invoke both dimensions and contribute to the impression that what we see is what we comprehend. As Brighenti (2007) puts it “vision is alias for intellectual apprehension” (p. 327). This belief may explain ambitions to uncoverand expose reality to the naked eye. Although such ambition is often driven by social indignation and a desire for fairness and change, major data leakages such as WikiLeaks illustrate that visibility may confuse, frustrate or pacify rather than inform.
The eye and what it allows us to see is a frequent source of illusion.
Leaving aside the possibility of optical illusions, although this is a quite realistic prospect in a world saturated with images, the gaze is a frequent source of blindness. While the promise of transparency is to help the spectator see into something, there is always the risk that the gaze is blunted or bored by impressions to the effect that objects accessible to the eye are seen through and ignored. Even when this is not the case, the lack of an Archimedean point of observation from which an observer can perceive the object of inquiry in its totality seriously challenges the notion of a single perspective on reality and thereby conventional conception of transparency as visibility.
Without knowing in advance what to look for, visibility is likely to confuse more than inform.
While the gaze is obviously never “naked” or innocent, it takes a trained gaze as well as understanding of local norms, mores and myths, as anthropologists are aware of, to look systematically and to know what to look for. This problem is evident when we are invited to “see for ourselves”, but lack professional experience to differentiate between relevant and irrelevant material and events. When organizations of various sorts, for example, host “open house” days – a practice that is quite common in in all kinds of organizations from organic farming to higher education – visitors may be able to see a lot without necessarily knowing what to make of it. Here, visibility only makes sense because it is placed in a context of a well-known social ritual.
What happens to insight if visibility affects the objects we intend to understand?
In addition to the limitations of the gaze itself, it is well-known that objects of attention are significantly affected by processes of observation. While system theorists have argued that the properties of an object are relative to the observer, breakthroughs in quantum physics have demonstrated that even small particles behave quite differently when observed. The behavioural effects of visibility are likely to be even more dramatic when the objects of attention are human beings. In such cases, whatever is visible is likely to be shaped by power plays and image management.
Visibility is a trap.
(Foucault, 1977, p. 200).
The very possibility of being observed affects the behavior of those within visual range. While Foucault described this tendency in the context of prisons, Bernstein has demonstrated how it affects work practices. However, whereas Foucault emphasized that visibility enforce self-discipline, Bernstein illustrates that visibility may reduce productivity because it removes attention from working effectively to practices of signaling that the correct procedures are followed.
When impression management is prevailing, what we see are ideals rather than actual practices.
When scholars and social critics take visibility to mean transparency, they reproduce a deep-seated conviction that the gaze is a primary source of insight. By maintaining a close link between visibility and transparency, transparency is reduced to a surface phenomenon that only requires accessibly to the eye. Hereby, what visibility does or conceals is ignored. Increasing visibility may hide an object in plain sight. It may also dazzle the observer in ways that reduce the ability to understand what goes on.
The fascination with visibility needs to be tempered by a persistent aspiration for knowledge and real insight.
It is not news anymore that a change of consumer behavior is needed in order to have a chance at mitigating climate change. Almost every consumer action today can be quantified in terms of environmental impact. We know that we should opt for the tofu sticks instead of the steak at our neighbor’s barbeque, and we know that we should avoid the all-inclusive vacation to the Caribbean and take a cozy camping trip at Denmark’s beaches instead. What we don’t know is what those behavior changes mean for consumers. What are the consequences for our individual quality of life and well-being?
Self-sacrificing for the planet
The expectation does not seem to be very satisfying. Most of us have heard the word “sacrifice” in the context of environmentally friendly behavior before. The message we receive from climate activists, journalists and researchers is very clear:
We need to change our behavior today to avoid the catastrophic consequences of climate change tomorrow. We need to change our behavior for our children, the animals, other people in other countries, or our own future lives – even if we don’t want to.
We are expected to change our behavior for the greater good, while our own desires have to wait in line [1, 2].
This sacrifice narrative cannot only be found in climate change communication but also in consumers’ minds: When investigating what was hindering consumers to act environmentally friendly when they generally value the environment, the expectation of sacrifice and lowered quality of life was found to be one important factor . Consumers seem to equate environmentally friendly behavior with a loss in quality of life and comfort. This anticipation, among others, prevents them from changing their behaviors and joining in the efforts of mitigating climate change.
Why is this important?
While altruistic motivation – driving us to self-sacrifice for the greater good – is positively related to environmental behavior , it can only get us so far. Another main driver of our actions is egoistic motivation. And as it seems, behaving more environmentally friendly is not perceived as a particularly egoistic action. While there sure are people with very strong altruistic motivation who enjoy behaving in a morally right way, many people are egoistic some or most of the time.
If the perspective of an environmentally friendly life is a bleak one, environmental engagement will be limited.
This is not only relevant for individual consumer behavior and environmental engagement, but also for policy and activism. When an environmentally friendly life seems bleak and uncomfortable to many people, it will be a difficult task to get them on board. Why would I support or vote for somebody who wants my life to become worse right now as a tradeoff for a potentially less catastrophic future?
Aside from elections, citizens who equate environmentally friendly behavior with sacrifice and lower well-being may also have lower acceptance of necessary policy interventions aimed at mitigating climate change. Consequently, the necessary change towards more environmentally friendly consumption will be hard to realize without considering its effects on well-being.
Does it have to be sacrifice?
Is it even true that environmentally friendly consumption can be equated with sacrifice, discomfort and a bleak existence?
Contrary to what the public opinion seems to believe, the relationship between well-being and environmentally friendly (or unfriendly) behavior is empirically not yet clear.
Some correlational studies even suggest the opposite: a positive relationship between environmentally friendly behavior and well-being [e.g., 5, 6]. These studies find that people who behave environmentally friendly are more satisfied with their lives. We cannot infer any causality of course – but these findings at least challenge the sacrifice assumption. This means that there may be a discrepancy between consumers’ expectations and the reality of behavior change. The sacrifice assumption might therefore not only be unhelpful in engaging consumers to behave differently, it may even be completely untrue.
What does that mean for us environmental researchers? We need to explore why consumers expect negative consequences of environmental behavior change and how to change that. We need to understand what these negative expectations are exactly. We need to take consumer well-being seriously and keep it in mind when designing behavior change policies and initiatives. And we need to rethink how we communicate about environmental behavior change and climate change mitigation.
Laura Krumm is a PhD fellow at the Department of Management, Society and Communication and a member of the Consumer & Behavioural Insights Group. In her PhD project she explores the intersection of environmental consumer behavior and well-being.
The number of products advertised as “green” or climate neutral has exploded in recent years, according to several newspaper articles.Should we be alarmed? To some extent, yes. In addition to cases of blatant fraud and manipulation, there is reason to be concerned when a plethora of green labels for products – ranging from milk over burgers to gasoline – competes for attention, especially when the variety confuses understandings of what it means to be sustainable.
Moreover, since carbon offset programs tend to obscure the fact that neither air travel nor fashion clothing is or can be CO2 neutral, the need to question and test green advertising claims is more pressing than ever. It is therefore commendable that politicians and NGOs in some countries call for more control with corporations that claim to market green or CO2 neutral products.
The growth in green advertising claims attracts increased scrutiny, regulation and control.
At the same time, the expansion in green advertising claims illustrates the growing social, political and economic premium put on sustainability. Even if many such claims are superficial and hypocritical, their combined existence is performative beyond what individual corporations, NGOs and regulators can imagine and control.
When all social actors express the significance of sustainability, something has changed.
Scholars of communication often emphasize that communication is constitutive of organizational and social reality. Communication, in their view, is performative because it does something more than simply describe a preexisting reality. Yet, in what sense does this logic apply to issues of climate change and the broader sustainability arena?
To what extent has communication performative potential in the sustainability arena?
Critics of the performative view on communication view argue that green messages often fail to change anything, either because the senders are insincere or because larger social forces, such as profit motives or efficiency demands, override any talk about sustainability. The power of sustainability communication to shape organizational practices is therefore often described as naïve or overly optimistic. These are important objections to the performativity perspective. Yet, communication still plays a significant role in instigating better practices.
The articulation of sustainability ideals is often “the leading incident” in its performance (Austin, 1962, p. 8).
It is certainly true that sustainability communication is insufficient in and of itself to ensure more sustainable practices. Some sustainability claims may even prevent organizations from moving in the right direction. Nonetheless, communication about sustainability is an important dimension of sustainable action. Without a communicative engagement of major corporations with the values and ideals of sustainability, changes in that arena are likely to be significantly slower.
Interestingly, critique and control of sustainability claims may help such claims to perform.
Talk about sustainability and green products tend to attract attention of critical stakeholders and increase internal and external pressure to walk the talk. Bold statements combined with public exposure and critique are important dimensions of what we might call the performativity “cocktail”. Green advertising claims and public statements about CO2 neutrality can be used to apply pressure on corporations and remind them of their promises. If major corporations, out of fear of attracting negative stakeholder attention, decide to remain silent on the sustainability issue, critics and regulators have less material to work with. In other words, a willingness on the part of corporations to expose themselves to critique is key.
Communicative performativity in the sustainability arena is a macro phenomenon.
Obviously, an organization does not become sustainable by simply “talking green”. In fact, it is a mistake to think of performativity – especially in complex areas such as sustainability – as a result of discrete and isolated organizational messages or claims. It doesn’t work that way. Even with the best intentions, green talk takes considerable time and effort to materialize into more sustainable practices. Moreover, it is rarely an organizational effect. Performativity is an outcome of multiple claims that are repeated and reformulated again and again over time and across multiple organizations, public as well as private. The sedimented effect of such dynamic interaction that lead to what Butler (2010) calls “socially binding consequences” (p. 147).
The performativity of sustainability claims should be understood as sedimented effects of multiple claims and understandings.
The communicative performativity of sustainability claims involve reactions of stakeholders, competitors, legislators and consumers who are variously affected, inspired or provoked by the claims to expect and demand better practices. Still, there is no guarantee that the claims will stimulate significant changes. That, of course, is true for all types of messages. Messages and claims can be ignored, forgotten or outright contradicted by subsequent claims or other types of action. Without the claims, however, society and the physical environment is likely to be worse off. The trick is to use them actively to remind the senders of their social and environmental responsibilities.
As the global Covid-19 pandemic spread through Europe and North America, companies raced to communicate how they were responding to the crisis. Advertising that focuses on a company’s response to humanitarian crises is hardly new. Every holiday season features a parade of brands touting their seasonal partnerships with charitable causes. Yet these exercises in “Covid-branding” struck a particular nerve with both consumers and media commentators because so many of the brands stuck to the same script. Quickly that script even became the subject of satire.
‘The hallmarks of the coronavirus ad are so consistent they could be generated by bots. They begin with eerie drone footage of empty streets, a shot of a child staring plaintively out the window and then — cue the upbeat musical key change — a medical worker peeling off a mask, a guy jamming on a home piano, maybe a deeply pregnant woman rubbing her belly as if summoning a genie from its bottle.’
Amanda Hess, The New York Times, May 22, 2020
These patterns are important. In the uncertain early weeks of the pandemic, as governments were still crafting their responses, the stories brands told played a role in shaping how the public made sense of the crisis. What kind of a crisis was it? What sort of solutions did it need? What role should business play in delivering them? Covid-branding offered answers to those questions.
In this briefing note, we present a preliminary analysis of Covid-branding by companies in Europe and North America during March and April 2020. Our analysis finds that messaging clustered clearly into two ways could engage: ‘Covid-helping’ and ‘Covid-coping.’ These messages of ‘managing the pandemic’ and ‘managing yourself’ frame the consumption of goods and services as a way that consumers can show they care, presenting shopping as a form of everyday heroism. In this way, they make the case that private sector has a role to play in humanitarian response.
The Covid-19 pandemic has taken an extraordinary toll on the global economy. Measures to combat the spread of the virus, including border closures, and national lockdowns affecting one-third of the world’s population, shut down much industrial production and pushed white-collar professionals to remote work. These measures, coupled with a fall in consumers’ own confidence in response to the health crisis, contributed to rising unemployment, falling consumer activity, and the worst global recession since the Great Depression.
This context, with consumer activity declining overall and shifting from closed stores to online retailers, placed pressure on brands to compete for a share of the smaller e-commerce pie. At the same time, the recession placed pressure on marketing professionals to demonstrate their relevance at a time of overall corporate retrenchment.
We focus our analysis on online communications, especially social media output. Social media marketing is often informal in tone and crafted quickly to respond to real-time events, so that brands can ride the waves of attention paid to viral news stories, from royal babies to sporting events.4 Most research about this practice has suggested brands choose to focus on positive or neutral stories to avoid mistakes, as humorous tweets about a serious event can backfire. That makes Covid-branding in the early weeks of the pandemic, when infection and death rates were rising, unusual.
We also examine promotional emails and newsletters, a form of content marketing. Content marketers have begun to develop more journalistic skills, including as storytellers and explainers of complex phenomena, and indeed many former journalists are employed as content marketers. Covid-branding, in which brands help consumers make sense of the emerging crisis, is an example of this phenomenon.
These online forms have not received much attention from researchers of corporate humanitarianism, which has focused on more traditional forms of print and broadcast advertising. We hope that this brief typology of how marketers used these newer forms in the Covid-19 pandemic encourages further research into these formats.
Covid-branding as Covid-helping
Brands that emphasized their role in helping to manage the pandemic did so in distinct ways. To understand this, we considered two aspects of each marketing message: First, whether companies are making an engaged or disengaged intervention. Companies which are engaged use their own business capacities toward the Covid-19 cause. Second, we consider whether companies are claiming to directly or indirectly impact the Covid-19 crisis itself. We investigate whether the brand claims to address the medical situation (direct) or indirect societal outcomes of the pandemic, including economic impacts.
The four modes of engagement
Direct Engaged: Business puts its core capacities into directly fighting Covid
Some companies with core operations in the fields directly linked to fighting the pandemic (i.e. health care or logistics companies) quickly began communications around their role.
This Novo Nordisk Facebook advertisement shows healthcare workers holding up a sign reading “Thanks” in Danish. Novo Nordisk is a leading pharmaceutical company. Photographs of healthcare professionals at work in Novo Nordisk-made protective gear signaled company’s direct engagement.
Examples of countries where these products are in use underscores that the company serves a modern, global, and racially and gender-diverse group of professionals. Other direct engagement included shipping company Mærsk tweeting about “Mærsk Bridge,’ an air bridge and supply chain operation to transport PPE to healthcare workers.
Indirect Engaged: Business puts its core capacities into indirectly managing Covid
Since direct business engagement was only possible for companies whose core business was in medical or logistical operations, many companies emphasised managing indirect societal impacts of the pandemic in their early response.
As a food and drinks business with a national supply chain, Starbucks was able to use its core capacities to address indirect economic impact of pandemic on food supply. Promotional email highlights corporate donations of 700,000 meals to food banks and use of company logistics network to assist foodbanks with transport.
Makes the case that hunger “is part of the crisis” to underscore relevance of this indirect engagement.
Other indirect engagement included Draper James, the American actress Reese Witherspoon’s fashion brand, announced on its Instagram account on April 2, donations of dresses for teachers (deemed essential workers during pandemic); campaign backfired when dress supplies ran out.
Direct Disengaged: Business helps others directly fight Covid
Businesses who could not easily link their core operations to medical needs instead highlighted partnerships to help others managing the Cover crisis.
A promotional email from Camper highlights the use of 3D printers from its manufacturing operation to produce medical visors. The Email also highlights donations of shoes and slippers to staff and patients in hospitals.
Camper does not claim that they are themselves engaged in work to combat the medical crisis, but rather that they are making resources and equipment available to others who can do so.
Other direct disengaged examples included fashion brand Armedangels making cloth masks while explicitly stating on Facebook that they could not protect the wearer – “we can’t produce medical masks” – but that 2 euro from the sales of each mask would be donated to Doctors Without Borders, or gas company Crusoe Energy Systems announcing that they were donating computing power to Stanford University coronavirus research.
Indirect disengaged: Business helps others indirectly manage Covid
Businesses who could not easily link their core operations to urgent economic or societal needs instead highlighted partnerships to help others managing the impact of the Covid crisis.
Instagram post by crowd-funding platform GoFundMe promoting that its platform can be used by consumers to identify causes to support. Following the link to “learn more” shows company also offering free consulting to nonprofits on how to raise additional funds.
The company is not mobilizing its own resources to support Covid-related causes, but rather facilitating donations to other organizations through information sharing. Such consulting activity is not an ordinary part of the company’s core business.
Other indirect disengaged examples included Facebook offering grants for small businesses in the United States and using its network to promote the existing loan program from the US government.
Covid-branding as Covid-coping
Many brand engagements we examined did not make any claims to be helping combat the crisis, or its social impact, at all. Rather they focused on helping individual consumers to cope with the circumstances surrounding the crisis and its personal impact on themselves.
Because these “Covid-coping” messages focused on helping individuals, rather than society or the economy, our analysis focused on the demographics of what kind of consumers each type of “coping” message addressed, as well as what the messages said. We identified three coping mechanisms brands sold to consumers in these Covid-coping messages: coping-through-practicality, coping-through-pleasure and coping-through-denial.
Like indirect Covid-helping, it portrays shopping as way to address consequences of the pandemic, but instead of focusing on consequences for society, it targets how consumers can address their own needs.
An Instagram post by Zoku, a real estate company managing coworking spaces, offered private office rooms for professionals needing a socially distant office away from their household. Emphasis is put on a spare and clean layout of the office and “peace and quiet” for workers.
It suggests appeal to professionals with children struggling with disruption to work practices in shared family homes. Coping-through-practicality engagements largely addressed themselves to consumers in their identities as professionals and parents.
Other coping-through-practicality examples included laptop manufacturers advertising tools for working from home; home furnishings brands advertising tools for cooking at home; and phone, internet and electricity providers advertising their services as essential infrastructure for remote working and home-schooling. Marketing of this type emphasizes how brands could help families and businesses carry on “as normal” during a period of crisis.
Exclusively comprised of brands in the fashion, fitness and lifestyle industries, with messages targeted to young and predominantly white women; present luxury goods as means of coping with pandemic through ‘self-care’.
A promotional newsletter for the “athleisure” brand Jolyn depicts a slim and muscular white woman on an inflatable pool float wearing sunglasses and painted toenails. Sunlight appears to reflect off the body of water in which she floats, with a caption advertising a “Bikini for staycation.” The Image and caption present the lockdown, which compelled individuals to stay home from their usual recreational activities, as a “staycation,” an unexpected source of free time at home.
Other coping-through-pleasure messages included advertisements from fashion brands including Anthropologie and Nicole Miller advertising loungewear as “self-care style” and clothing for “virtual dates or happy hours,” as well as make-up brands offering online tutorials for those with “more time (inside) on our hands.”
These messages present the health crisis as an opportunity for women to take a “break” from work outside the home and relax with home-bound versions of their usual recreational activities. They draw on influencer culture, which depicts recreation as a full-time occupation. Coping-through-pleasure offers the chance to purchase some of the influencer lifestyle, where the pandemic is not a stressor, and one can escape at a moment’s notice to a sunlit pool.
Targeted widely to all consumers, these messages suggested that consumers shop as though the pandemic were not taking place, or advertised products which made light of the pandemic.
A full page newspaper advertisement in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s mostread newspaper, on 7 March, by two Italian ski resorts, Bormio and Livigno, captioned “Live the mountain with full lungs: There’s a snowy place where feeling great is contagious!”
At the time of advertisement running, lockdown was dissuading tourists from traveling to Italy, putting pressure on ski resorts, while deaths from the respiratory virus – which kills by targeting the lungs specifically – were at their highest in northern Italy, where ski resorts are concentrated.
Other coping-through-denial advertisements included Passports, a travel rewards program, contacting members in mid-March, when concerns about virus spread were focused on cruise ships, to advertise “the best pricing and exceptional bonuses” on celebrity cruises, and online retailers of topical and humorous T-shirts advertising limited range clothing with coronavirus-related captions. Notably, these engagements came broadly from the early weeks of our sample, and brands appeared to shy away from explicitly seeking to make light of the crisis or encouraging consumers to travel in spite of it, by the end of March 2020 when more severe lockdown and suppression measures were in place across Europe.
Implications for Brands
The different types of early Covid-branding in our sample, whether they focus on helping or coping with the pandemic, offer some cautionary lessons for brands.
About Commodifying Compassion
‘Commodifying Compassion: Implications of Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things’ is a research project focused on understanding how ‘helping’ has become a marketable commodity and how this impacts humanitarianism. An international team of researchers funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (2017-2021), we examine ethical consumption intended to benefit humanitarian causes from the perspectives of consumers, businesses, NGOs and recipients. The research will produce a better understanding by humanitarian organizations and businesses leading to more ethical fundraising, donors weighing consumption-based models as part of more effective aid, and consumers making more informed choices about ‘helping’ by buying brand aid products. To learn more about our work, visit the website.
Maha Rafi Atalis a postdoctoral research fellow at the Copenhagen Business School, where her research focuses on corporate power, corporate social responsibility and corporate influence in the media. She is a co- Investigator on the Commodifying Compassion research project. http://www.maha-rafi-atal.com
Lisa Ann Richey is Professor of Globalization at the Copenhagen Business School. She works in the areas of international aid and humanitarian politics, the aid business and commodification of causes. She is the principal investigator on the Commodifying Compassion research project. https://www.lisaannrichey.com
Photo by Colton Vond, “Obey Consumerism,” March 3, 2019. Licensed under Creative Commons CC BY 2.0.
Do you feel uneasy to think that companies use a humorous tone in their communications about grave challenges such as climate change, pollution and inequality? We suggest the notion of helpful hypocrisy to coin this new ironic turn in recent corporate communications.
We have ourselves been intrigued by this new ‘ironic turn’ in corporate communications. Large international fashion brands such as Patagonia, Benetton and Diesel have recently challenged conventional informational approaches to marketing communication about sustainability, choosing instead to incorporate a humorous (or more precisely, an ironic) edge to their visual representations as they address issues of climate change.
Such campaigns are ironic because they bring a twist of message incongruity and ‘double talk’, where they show a world within which ambiguity, incongruity and contradictions are real and leaving it to consumers what to make of it. This stands in sharp contrast to conventional prescriptions in marketing communications where the idea of ‘one message’, or what we refer to as ‘single talk’, prevails with the purpose of targeting consumers effectively. In our recently published paper, we suggest the term ‘helpful hypocrisy’ as a way of coining the ironic turn.
On the one hand, these new ironic messages show consumers the dire consequences of pollution, climate change, flooding and deforestation (i.e. implications of consumption) and on the other hand, they simultaneously carry strong aesthetic appeals to enjoy life and consume more, comforting consumers that ‘life goes on’ and hedonistic lifestyles will continue. In new ‘twisting’ advertising campaigns, companies blend these two narratives in complex, ironic visualization.
Such double talk is often deemed hypocrisy and greenwashing in research as well as in practice. And while we agree with such assessment, our analysis shows that there is also something else going on.
We point to how such double talk may also provoke critical reflection and surprise through displaying inconsistencies between ‘talk’ and ‘talk,’ and hereby engage its audiences as more than passive recipients. In a cosmopolitan context, where people like to think that they are able and capable of critically reflect on their own lives and make their own decisions, preaching and moralizing communications about ‘good behavior’ is becoming increasingly less effective.
Youth is particularly opposing being told what to do. And even in spite of the severe consequences of continued consumption, a certain ‘climate change fatigue’ has entered the market. Consumers know that they should buy less and more sustainable products, but they are resistant to messages that give them feelings of guilt and shame.
In such a world, we suggest, one way to gain traction is to engage audiences in ironic and humorous communications in which the receiver is him- and herself activated to interpret incongruous ambiguous messages.
Analyzing Diesel’s Global Warming Ready campaign, we find how the technique of irony is particularly outspoken as beautiful people in beautiful clothes are inserted into out-of-place environments, juxtaposing them if you will, by the dire implications of climate change, in a way which makes the whole scenery appear absurd.
In our analysis, we develop an analytical model that positions irony and double talk vis a vis conventional marketing campaigns.
We point to how the blend of climate change and luxury consumption is an ambiguous affair, and we show how incongruity is present across four levels of Diesel’s use of irony: fantasy versus reality (framing), survival versus destruction (signifying), utopia versus dystopia (symbolizing) and political activism versus consumer society (ideologizing).
Without moralizing or telling consumers what to do, or even restraining from telling consumers how good the corporate sustainable activities are, Diesel exposes the ambiguities of society and sustainability by using humor.
Now, we are not fooling ourselves. Diesel is a company with an ambition of selling more products. And where satire is a technique that intends to improve humanity by critiquing its ‘follies and foibles’, companies are generally known to have less noble ambitions.
But we argue – with Swedish sociologist Nils Brunsson – that “hypocrisy appears to be exactly what we demand of modern organizations: if we expose organizations to conflicting demands and norms, and expect that they should respond to them, then we must also expect hypocrisy” (1993: 8-9).
We propose that irony may be considered a means of ‘helpful hypocrisy’ in which the public is exposed to the contradictions and vices of society with the purpose of changing people’s opinion and create betterment of society.
Brunsson, N. (1989). The Organization of Hypocrisy: Talk, Decisions and Actions in Organizations. Wiley.
Sarah Glozer is Associate Professor of Marketing and Society in the School of Management at the University of Bath, UK. She is also Deputy Director of the Centre for Business, Organisations and Society (CBOS). Her research focuses on corporate social responsibility (CSR) communication, digital marketing and ethical markets/consumption.
Mette Morsingis Professor and Mistra Chair of Sustainable Markets at Stockholm School of Economics (Sweden) and Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility at Copenhagen Business School (Denmark). Her research concerns how organizations govern and are governed in the context of sustainability. She is particularly interested in how communication, identity and image dynamics work in this regard.
The image is one of the eight images displayed in Glozer & Morsing (2019) from the Diesel Global Warming Ready campaign: New York City submerged in water
Traditional sources of entrepreneurial finance tend to favor men, while female entrepreneurs are often bypassed. Thielst, G.H. (2019), for example, found that Danish investors tend to be more skeptical towards female entrepreneurs and place higher demands on them for details, numbers, and forecasts. However, with the emergence of reward-based crowdfunding we are witnessing an outcome contrary to this offline gender inequality, that women are systematically more successful than men (Gorbatai & Nelson 2015, p.1). Let us explore why.
Reward-based crowdfunding – how does it work?
Reward-based crowdfunding is an increasingly common source of finance for a diversity of entrepreneurs and creative projects, where individuals invest a pre-defined amount of money with the expectation that if successfully funded, they will receive a tangible (but non-financial) reward often in the form of a product or service.
In reward-based crowdfunding hitting ones funding target is thus of critical importance as the campaign, as otherwise the pre-invested (or pledged) money would be returned to the backers.
Reward-based crowdfunding, like other forms of crowdfunding, is thus dependent on the successful interaction between a number of actors including the central organizing platform, a number of content providing campaigns, and a large diverse group of funders/backers.
The growth of reward-based crowdfunding has moved it beyond a niche phenomenon exemplified by the fact that in the past decade it has resulted in more than $10 billion in pledges from over 75 million backers (Blaseg et al. 2020) and has thus rightly captured researcher attention.
Female founders and reward-based crowdfunding
A diversity of studies into the antecedents of success in a reward-based crowdfunding context have all observed similar results – that women are significantly more likely to achieve their funding goals as compared to men (see Gorbatai & Nelson 2015; Marom et al. 2016; Greenberg & Mollick 2016; Nielsen 2019). Some of the reasons we have uncovered thus fare include differences in funding goals, communication styles, and activist female backers.
Both my recent research into crowdfunding in Denmark (Nielsen 2019) and the work by Marom et al. (2016) find that women tend to ask for less and thus also subsequently raise less through successful campaigns as compared to men.
For example, in a Danish context women had an average funding goal of 23.746,00 DKK as compared to men who set it at 27.960,00 DKK. Men therefore also experienced, when successful, more financial support earning on average 6.000,00 DKK more than women.
However, these differences in funding goals also mean the women are significantly more likely to actually hitting their funding goal and thus actually being financed. Women’s financial expectations of what they can raise through crowdfunding thus seem better aligned with reality. However, these differences in funding goals only account for parts of the overall picture.
In addition, Gorbatai & Nelson (2015) found that the communication style of women on crowdfunding platforms trended towards more inclusive and emotional language which in turn is positively associated with funding success. They thus propose that “the institution of crowdfunding may reduce gender inequalities in the fundraising arena by benefitting the communication style of women.” (Ibid, p.1).
Finally, both Marom et al. (2016) and Greenberg & Mollick (2016) found that female backers showed a significant preference for supporting women-led projects. Moreover, Greenberg & Mollick (2016) suggest results from “activist choice homophily” where “women are more inclined to fund women entrepreneurs because of perceived shared structural barriers that come from a mutual social identity.” (Leitch et al. 2018, p.110). They find this trend especially strong in industries in which they are least represented (e.g. technology industry).
Reward-based crowdfunding favors female founders
Thus, unlike many other forms of financing (Sorenson et al. 2016), women appear to benefit from reward-based crowdfunding for the noted reasons: communication style, activist female backers and not least financial expectations that are better aligned with crowdfunding as a financing tool.
However, as with all other research, these initial findings are not universal nor have many of them been validated by follow-up studies and the results are therefore far from conclusive. Nonetheless, we can with a certain degree say that reward-based crowdfunding contrary offline source of innovation finance systematically favors female founders.
Whenever we think about regulating sustainability problems, we usually think about the here and now or at least about the not too distant future. Even with regard to climate change, which clearly is a problem for future generations, regulators have a time horizon of not more than 30 or 40 years. The Paris Accord is a case in point – it sets targets for 2050. Also, the European Union’s climate strategy sets goals until 2050. But, what happens if regulators need to think about a very distant future?
Consider the example of nuclear waste. The challenge is not only to find a secure location to store the byproducts of burning uranium. The challenge is also, and maybe most of all, to prevent future generations to disturb the deep underground storage facilities, be it intentional or not. This requires “talking to” distant future generations. Chlorine-36 (one of the byproducts) has a half-life of approximately 300,000 years. Compare this to the roughly 40,000 years that the behavioral homo sapiens is supposed to be around – i.e. human beings which engaged in the development of language and early forms of religion – and you get an idea about the scope and scale of the underlying challenge.
Deep underground storage is, at least as of now, the only option to deal with nuclear waste. In the 1980s, some governments considered the idea of simply firing nuclear waste into space. This idea was rejected due to security concerns. Right now, there are few final repository sites for nuclear waste, such as the US-based Waste Isolation Plant in New Mexico.
>>How do we secure these sites from future human intervention? What is needed is a way to communicate with future generations. <<
By definition, the future is unknown and we do not know whether future generations may try to dig at the sites where nuclear waste is disposed. There are many reasons why such underground storage sites could be interesting for future generations, ranging from pure curiosity to a danger that they misread/misinterpret warning signs or other artifacts. What will be a symbol of danger in, say, 150,000 years from now? How does memory survive?
Governments around the world have developed different approaches to talk to the future. One possible US solution includes giant granite markers that are supposed to prevent human intervention (see picture). The US Department of Energy writes:
“Regulations require that waste disposal sites use markers and other controls to indicate dangers and locations of waste.”
One problem with these giant markers is exactly that they are giant and that they are supposed to signal fear and danger. What, however, if signals of fear and danger incite curiosity? The US facility will not be closed until 2050, so there is still time to decide otherwise.
If a written message were to be attached to any warning markers, how would such a message look like? One current proposal is to use the message (see below) which is then to be translated into every written UN language. Although there is no consensus on the content and nature of the message among members of the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA), it is clear that such a message needs to be developed.
“This place is a message… and part of a system of messages …pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture. This place is not a place of honor … no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here. What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger. The danger is in a particular location… it increases towards a center… the center of danger is here… of a particular size and shape, and below us. The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours. The danger is to the body, and it can kill. The form of the danger is an emanation of energy. The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.”
Trauth, K.M., Hora, S.C., & Guzowski, R.V. Expert judgment on markers to deter inadvertent human intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. United States. doi:10.2172/10117359, pp. F49-F50
An alternative solution would be to adopt a more evolutionary approach. Such an approach would not put the message into granite (or other materials). Rather, it would create “an enduring culture around the nuclear waste depositories.” (Financial Times, 14 July 2016) Keeping the memory alive, then, would be an accomplishment that is passed from generation to generation (e.g., via stories, exhibitions, songs, art). As language and symbols change over time, this evolutionary approach would adapt the message to the contextual particularities that evolve in the future. Such a community-based approach would then rely on locals, who live around a waste storage site, to warn others.
There are pros and cons for both approaches and it is uncertain what regulators will do. However, what this example shows is that thinking about regulating actions in the distant future requires drawing on insights from multiple disciplines, ranging from linguistics to nuclear scientists and anthropologists.
Does all of this have something to do with sustainability? Just think about a world in which we cannot securely seal nuclear waste…
About the Author
Andreas Rasche is Professor of Business in Society at CBS and Associate Dean for the CBS Full-Time MBA Program. He is also Visiting Professor at Stockholm School of Economics. More at: www.arasche.com.
Corporate sustainability is full of statements, terms, and concepts that are empty, unclarifiable and vague. Instead of rejecting such vagueness altogether, we should embrace it. Bullshit can be productive.
Consider the following statement:
“The concept of shared value can be defined as policies and operating practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates. Shared value creation focuses on identifying and expanding the connections between societal and economic progress.”
The sentence is taken from Michael Porter’s and Mark Kramer’s well-known article Creating Shared Value (2011, p. 66).
Now, consider this statement:
“The concept of strategic CSR can be defined as policies and operating practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates. Strategic CSR focuses on identifying and expanding the connections between societal and economic progress.”
You are right, I replaced “shared value” with “strategic CSR”. What is interesting is that both statements sound equally plausible. I consider such statements to reflect bullshit, and I am using the term not in a disrespectful sense. I refer to bullshit, because I think we need to be precise.
What is Bullshit?
In 1986, Princeton Professor Harry Frankfurt published a little essay titled On Bullshit in the Raritan Review, which was later published as a book (2005). Frankfurt’s argument was this: While the liar is aware of the truth, but seeks to avoid it, the bullshitter does not care much about the truth. As Frankfurt writes:
“It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as the essence of bullshit.”
(2005, p. 33)
The bullshitter deceives others about his enterprise. He does not want others to know that he is not interested in the truth. And, of course, we are all thinking about current US President Donald Trump here. He not only is a notorious liar (The Washington Post has counted more than 5.000 false or misleading statements so far), but also a skilled bullshitter.
Frankfurt defines bullshit with regard to the bullshitter. This is helpful, but it may also be problematic for a variety of reasons (e.g. an assumed intentionality). Others have, therefore, expanded this debate. Cohen (2012), for instance, looks at the bullshit itself rather than the bullshitter. He sees bullshit as statements that are characterized by an “unclarifiable unclarity” (p. 105) – i.e. statements that are vague, airy, and hard to render unobscure. He suggests that when it is possible that key terms within a statement can be exchanged without altering its plausibility, at least a sufficient condition for the existence of bullshit is met.
Corporate Sustainability as Bullshit
Corporate sustainability (and related discourses such as CSR, ESG etc.) are full of bullshit. Actually, the very fact that it is still unclear whether relevant practices are labelled “CSR” or “sustainability” (and that both labels are often used interchangeably), shows that there is a lot of unclarifiable unclarity.
Within corporate sustainability there are at least two sources of bullshit.
First, academics and management gurus produce a lot of it. Recently, André Spicer has offered a sharp and entertaining analysis of such kind of bullshit in his book Business Bullshit (though mostly without reference to corporate sustainability). The mere fact that concepts like “shared value” and “strategic CSR” are exchangeable without any loss of plausibility shows that the discourse is “full of it” (on the lack of distinction between CSV and strategic CSR see also Andrew Crane and colleagues 2014, p. 134). Also, a lot of emphasis has been placed on “transforming business models” in discussions around corporate sustainability. But, the very term “business model” faces a certain emptiness and means different things to different people. I have seen many different interpretations of what a “business model” could be or should be. These are just two examples, but the list is long… just think about “materiality” or “transformative leadership”.
Second, corporations are also in the business of bullshit production. Especially the communication of sustainability aspirations is often based on bullshit. Consider Carlsberg’s recent Towards Zero campaign. One pillar of the campaign is to reduce irresponsible drinking to ZERO. Of course, this is not only an ambitious goal, but a nearly impossible one (also because the company’s control over peoples’ level of responsible drinking is limited). Understood in this way, this broad claim is bullshit in the Cohenian sense – there is unclarifiable unclarity involved. But, most people know that the statement should not be taken at face value; it is supposed to raise awareness and signal a high level of ambition. And this is exactly what can make corporate sustainability as bullshit a productive (and maybe even inevitable) enterprise.
Why We Need Bullshit
Bullshit is a two-edged sword. It certainly comes with a number of problems (and Spicer’s book, which I mentioned above, discusses some of these complications). Also, too much of it, can be dangerous, because it may obscure important pillars of meaning construction.
But, corporate sustainability as bullshit can also be productive. Ambitious statements, like the one by Carlsberg above, have a certain necessary emptiness. The resulting ambiguity can motivate employees and hence change corporate practices, especially as the statement was publicly communicated, which, again, increases the likelihood that others will hold the company accountable (on this see also Christensen et al.’s discussion of Aspirational Talk, 2013). In other words, corporate sustainability as bullshit may spur self-fulfilling prophecies.
The same can be said about concepts like “Creating Shared Value” (CSV) or “Strategic CSR”. Their meaning is vague and it is certainly difficult to make them less obscure. Bullshit is built into these concepts, and usually this is a deliberate choice of those people who create and diffuse them. Considering the enormous success of concepts like CSV, we could even say: Bullshit sells! Why? Because the ambiguity that surrounds the concept makes it attractive to a large audience. Firms can bend the concept in ways that fit their specific needs.
So, what is the bottom line? I would say it like this: Let us be clear about when corporate sustainability is moving towards bullshit. Let us also understand the productive nature of such bullshit. But, let us also be aware that “too much of it” can be a major problem for the future of sustainable business practices, both in theory and in practice.