Thursday, June 20, 2019

Painted Over

It's not uncommon to hear people refer to companies "greenwashing" or "wokewashing;" that is, using the language and/or imagery of environmental stewardship or social consciousness without really taking the necessary actions (or as much action as they'd like to appear to be) to further those ends. Part of this is a certain understandable (and sometimes, warranted) cynicism towards businesses, which, after all, at answerable to their shareholders and/or other owners to a much greater degree than they are to the public at large, let alone the specific subsets of people who consider themselves "green" or "woke." And there are others, like "redwashing," "pinkwashing," and "bluewashing" which I will admit were all new to me.

This is to be expected, I think. After all, environmental stewardship and social consciousness are, from the point of view of a business, brand assets, no less than a reputation for quality or perception of value. And these are also things that businesses (and governments), given half a chance, will fake if they can get away with it. Like the more garden-variety "whitewashing" (outside of the motion-picture industry, in which it has a different meaning), all of these are simply shortcuts to a better public image. Or, to perhaps use a term more favored in business, "efficiencies."

There is, as in many things, a perverse incentive at work. While a reputation for quality or for socially-conscious activism are brand assets, high-quality products and services or social consciousness can be expensive. And when the bottom line is important, that creates an incentive to attain the reputation, and the benefits thereof, with as little expenditure as can be managed. This can lead to companies looking for genuine efficiencies, finding ways to get the most bang for their buck, to reuse the cliché. But in a situation where genuine progress can be hard for a layperson to determine, there can be a temptation to stop at talking the talk. While security is a common area where this is seen; leading to the term "security theater," if it's not immediately evident when the walk is being walked, the fact that talk is cheap(er) will likely become something of a consideration.

Perverse incentives are built into the human experience from the outset. For any number of human activities, there is an "easy way" to an end, and as long as this is true, people will be attracted to them. Guarding against them takes what can be a remarkable amount of effort, and to the degree that we see that effort as detracting from more important activities, it's reasonable that people will skimp on it. Doing things the hard way, or even simply doing what was promised, is often a more difficult sell than we give it credit for, which is what makes it important.

No comments: