Causewashing is the New Greenwashing

Deceitful marketing is an unfortunate reality in today’s competitive landscape. One of its modern expressions is a practice known as causewashing. We dug into this growing practice, traced its history, and developed guidelines for identifying it.
Causewashing is the new greenwashing

Cause for Alarm

Deceitful marketing is an unfortunate reality in today’s competitive landscape. One of its modern expressions is a practice known as causewashing. We dug into this growing practice, traced its history, and developed guidelines for identifying it. This led us to a deeper understanding of how it can damage a brand’s reputation, and how you can communicate your authentic support of a cause—an important marketing differentiator. In this article, we’ll cover the dangers of causewashing, how to identify whether or not you’re participating in it unknowingly, and how to make your authentic cause stand out amongst the growing sea of causes.

A New Realization

Chances are you’ve heard the term “Greenwashing.” Greenwashing is a false claim where companies use seemingly environmentally friendly practices to improve their image when they’re actually harming the environment and/or their activities are primarily intended to benefit their bottom line. Some organizations spend more on advertising their green benefits than they do on reducing their environmental impact.

The term “greenwash” was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986. He became curious about a tent card in his hotel room encouraging him to hang up his towel until he needed it to be washed. The card suggested that this would reduce water use and therefore benefit the environment. After looking into this practice in the hotel industry, he concluded that the true motivation was increasing hotel profits through using less water.

Clap For Joy

One of the most well-known acts of greenwashing was performed in 1990 by DuPont. They worked with worldwide advertising agency BBDO to produce a commercial that showed animals applauding, leaping, and flying to the strains of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Voiceover informs the viewer that Dupont ordered safer, double-hulled oil tankers in order to “...safeguard the environment.” This from a company that, according to, the EPA listed as the number one emitter of toxins in 1994.

It’s clear to see that this greenwashing effort was aimed at improving DuPont’s environmental reputation while it continued its pattern of environmental destruction. As Jamie Murray, director of DuPont’s Corporate Brands, put it, “It increased DuPont’s favorability as a good citizen–we moved the needle.” Their hope, of course, was that this perception would encourage people to buy their products, ignore their environmental impact, and increase profits.

From Greenwashing to Causewashing

Over 25 years after DuPont’s clapping video, profit-driven brands have shifted with the times, supporting causes and practicing cause-marketing as a way to attract new customers and tap into the millennial market. Spotting these activities takes a little detective work.

Here are some telltale signs that a company is practicing causewashing:

  1. Difficult to Verify: Does the stated cause imply something, only to fall short of its promise upon closer inspection?
  2. Self-Serving: Is the effort ultimately aimed at improving the image and/or sales of the company?
  3. No proof of impact: Can the impact of the stated cause be proven with real data and/or stories of success?
  4. Vague: Are the claims unclear or dubious? Is it difficult to decipher what’s actually being accomplished?

The Dangers of Causewashing

People Are Smart

While it seems that some corporations think we’re stupid, the truth is that people, especially people who grew up with the internet, are well-informed and accustomed to doing online research. Organizations that believe they can cause-wash without being called out for it are mistaken. Instead, they alienate a large group of savvy consumers who view authentic social responsibility and a strong social mission as a key ingredient in their purchasing decisions. These people see through false claims of social and environmental responsibility. This is why we’re passionate about working with people who have a purpose and a mission baked into their DNA from the start. We talk more about these brands in our article, How We Define Social Purpose Brands.

The Media is Smart

If your marketing efforts hint at causewashing, today’s press will eat you alive. Case in point: Audi’s brilliantly executed 2017 Super Bowl ad. Forbes breaks down how this effort backfired in the article, Why Audi’s Super Bowl Ad Failed. The ad features a tenacious girl whose father fears that even with her many achievements she will still be viewed as less valuable than her male colleagues. It’s a strong message for closing the gender gap.

The Forbes article reveals the realities at Audi: Their six-person executive team is all men. Only 16% of their supervisory board is female—4% lower than average for Fortune 500 companies. Many YouTube viewers give the ad a thumbs down and comments run heavily negative. Per Forbes, “Some of that [negative reaction] comes from a perception of a manufacturer and seller of products trying to grab an issue and align with it for their own gain,” says Julie Hennessy, a marketing professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management.

When you compare the ad’s message to the reality at the company, it feels disingenuous and smacks of causewashing.

Cause Fatigue

If every organization has a social cause, then what does it matter which company you purchase from? While many people are willing to do a little research, it can feel overwhelming or become exhausting to dig deeply into every company. It makes non-savvy consumers throw up their hands and give up on brand loyalty, either assuming that everyone’s doing good or that everyone’s causewashing, so it doesn’t matter.

How to Make Your Cause Stand Out

There are some essential principles that social purpose brands need to follow to help people understand that they're genuine and worthy of garnering customer sales and loyalty.

  1. Articulate your impact: If you’re doing good and making progress toward fulfilling your mission, say so. If you want people to support your efforts, make sure that your achievements are clear. When we were strategizing with the Lakota People’s Law Project, we developed the idea that every campaign should have a progress timeline. This element of the campaign tells site visitors what’s been done, what needs to be accomplished, and the steps needed to reach their goals. Social purpose brands would be well-served to feature success stories early and often. We recommend a 3:1 ratio of successes to problems. For more on these concepts, see our article on The Power of Positive Messaging.
  2. Market Your Message: If you want to stand apart and compete with causewashing corporations for people’s time and interest, you need to develop a cohesive marketing strategy. Our approach to marketing comes from nearly a decade of working with for-profit and social purpose brands. To us, it’s unrealistic to think you can reach your full potential towards your social mission without integrating a solid marketing strategy. Read more about how to leverage your social mission in your marketing in our article, Why Your Marketing Campaigns Are Failing.
  3. Strike the Right Balance: Different types of organizations at various stages have different needs. Established social enterprises, like the WeWood watch company, push their products first and have their social mission less prominent. Relative newcomers to the market, like our friends at Causebox, are right to put their cause up front, holding equal weight with the products.

    Nonprofits and foundations typically lead with their cause, but many are seeing the value in selling products to support their efforts. Striking the right balance takes careful consideration.

Authenticity for the win

We are encouraged by the growing number of social purpose brands. At the same time, we urge caution in appearing to be an ‘Us Too’ brand that adopts causes just to please its market. Causewashing campaigns are subtle, sophisticated, and deceptive marketing ploys, but they can backfire. If you want your brand to stand out against the sea of cause-washers, you need to develop and execute a strong strategic plan designed to distinguish your brand as the real deal.

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