Making it happen since 1988

Corona-what-ing?

By Lucy Tant on Jun 03, 2020

It is fair to say that going green is ‘on trend’. Brands from every sector and price-point are trying to prove to consumers that they are responsible and taking their impact on the planet seriously.

We know consumers care about the climate. In the United States and United Kingdom, 90% of consumers say that brands have a responsibility to take care of the planet and its people, according to Wunderman Thompson Data. And 71% of global consumers agree that if they perceive a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever, according to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Now more than ever consumers are tuned into how much brands care and give back and expectations of brands continue to evolve as people now look to companies to ‘do good’. There’s nothing quite like a global pandemic to shift consumer opinion; Millennials and Gen Z were already gravitating to sustainable brands, but months in lockdown have only strengthened that and left them with a desire for less frequent, more mindful consumption. Brands are already anticipating this and we’re seeing shifts to more sustainable and eco practices.

The word coronavirus has not only become commonplace in our vocabulary, it’s now become a shortcut to brands showing they care, with many jumping on the bandwagon, urging us to #StaySafe.

Of course, a brand creating an image of caring doesn’t necessarily mean they have a true interest in the greater good. If you scratch beneath the veneer, this can reveal actions which in fact are causing more harm than good. The term ‘greenwashing’ was coined in the 80s and is used to describe companies that unwittingly dupe consumers into buying on the basis they are eco-friendly, when in fact they are quite the opposite.

Many brands greenwash by leaving sustainability in the hands of the consumer. For instance, using recyclable packaging is only eco-friendly if the consumer properly recycles it. And an eco-friendly item that is then shipped thousands of miles isn’t a truly environmentally sound purchase (unless the consumer opts for a carbon-offset shipping method for instance).

We are now experiencing the impact of Coronawashing; the practice of being seen to be supportive in the face of a world-wide tragedy. It could be argued that the motivations aren’t necessarily relevant, if their actions are productive. If businesses do the right thing for the wrong reasons, it may be permissible, but what about those that only appear to do what’s right?

For example, Uber released an ad entitled Thank You For Not Riding, showing people inside their homes during the pandemic, staying inside. While in reality, Uber is using coronavirus sick-leave measures to argue against giving its drivers employee status.

Then there was Primark’s care package donations to London’s Nightingale hospital – while at the same time in Bangladesh it was cancelling $273 million worth of production of goods. Due to adverse publicity, Primark has since reversed this decision.

didtheyhelp.com is a new website that’s sprung up to keep track on how companies and public figures have been behaving during the pandemic.

The sole purpose of the site is rating corporations, celebrities, and influencers during the COVID-19 crisis on their good deeds, or the lack of in some cases. Points are awarded to a company or individual for each positive action they take to support people and conversely, for each negative action points are deducted.

“Actions are not assessed on weight of impact or severity,” the About Us page on the site details. “In short, if a business has +4 points, it’s most likely they have done four good deeds.”

At first glance, detecting coronawashing is not an easy task. We’re in the throes of the crisis, so consumers tend to be grateful for any initiative. The true gain for the businesses will come afterwards, once time has gone by and the consumer perception improves for the company, because of coronawashing.

Nevertheless, there are some signs we can watch out for now, to help detect companies that could be coronawashing:

  • Communication – Is the company striving harder to communicate their initiative rather than the development of the initiative itself?
  • Consistency – Is the brand known for responsible behaviours generally? Have they acted in a similar way throughout their history?
  • Size – Is the contribution the business is making comparable to the profits they make?
  • Influence – Is the initiative focused on helping a specific audience that happens to coincide with their target consumer?

Of course, no aid or support to society in such a time should be scoffed at, but it is important to stay vigilant to prevent opportunistic behaviour, that could in turn tarnish the wider effort that is being made to overcome this crisis around the world.