“We Need More Empathy”, I recently saw this post from a major LinkedIn influencer and I was confused. Should I cringe or cheer on? Perhaps the author is designing a new Hallmark card? A lot of people replied and agreed.

It’s raining likes, hallelujah! Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see a movement emerging but this post felt like empty calories. I don’t doubt that the author genuinely feels this way and that genuine care is present. But there is a whole army out there trying to rally the troops via such battle cries yet not possessing the skill to answer the how. If we all run around screaming that we need change but can’t answer how then we are creating nothing but noise: just another form of pollution stealing the attention from actual change-makers, depriving them of the oxygen needed to grow. As we will see later, some of this noise may even have unintended negative consequences. To me, this has a lot to do with true authenticity, which isn’t just about honestly believing in a cause. Yes, honest belief is part of authenticity, but it needs to be supplemented by transparency and skill.

Let’s start with the baseline for authenticity, however. Being genuine implies being honest and sincere. For example, we all know by now that corporate greenwashing is rampant. This is extremely frustrating as the intent of the consumer to do good is being taken advantage of by profit-maximizing companies.

And while it is not criminal, it feels unethical in many instances. Beach clean-ups by fast-fashion companies trying to appear environmentally conscious while pushing short-lived products into a market that sees recycling rates of only 15%. Intended terminology confusion such as the bioplastics mess or ocean-bound vs ocean plastic discussion highlights that corporates are consciously manipulating and greenwashing. And for what? Take ocean (bound) plastic: we know that the vast majority of plastic enters the ocean through rivers, why paint the image of plastics being fished from the ocean when the river story is just as powerful. Packaged consumer goods companies serve plenty of examples as well.

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Where is the love? Photo by Kelly Lacy via Pexels

Full disclosure, I have always been fascinated with them. How did these companies get us to buy things that are bad for our wallets, bad for the environment, and bad for our health? For example, we recently saw a big announcement about an ocean plastic PET bottle. The underlying technology, depolymerization, is extremely inefficient and far from scalable, each bottle will only contain 20-25% ocean plastic (aka ocean bound plastic) which implies a large share of virgin plastic ending up in landfill due to the 28% PET recycling rate in the US. Some of the plastic may end up in developing countries and in the ocean degrading to microplastics which is an issue that has crept all the way into the placentas of unborn babies. I hope this shows the serious consequences of effective corporate greenwashing.

 

Now, here’s the thing. Innovation in depolymerization is needed and investment must flow into the space. However, witnessing some of the biggest polluters engaged in a way that suggests they are planning for a future full of PET bottles is utterly shocking.

Another example: we currently see an increase in clean-up campaigns which is truly amazing. People, many of whom are from developing countries hardest hit by the global plastic epidemic, are getting their hands dirty to make the planet better. It becomes concerning, however, when such campaigns are created for the purpose of a polluting corporation to push more products. Let me explain. Imagine a large company painting a green image motivating volunteers in developing countries to collect plastic for free. The footage of such collections, in turn, is used for marketing, increasing the sales of said company. This leads to more trash some of which ends up back in these developing countries due to the above low recycling rates and waste export in the US. More trash for the volunteers to pick up for free while corporate makes bank. Overall, acting in such a way may prevent impact tribes from building in the first place or destroy them when the dishonesty is exposed. We can’t let this happen. We don’t need more disillusionment.

 

Those recycled clothes you bought to save the world? Many end up as trash in developing countries. But not before companies extracted a large profit from your good ambitions. Photo by Mumtahina Tanni via Pexels

As a related issue, let’s tackle transparency next. We often hear how much plastic was “taken out of the system”. “Our clothes are made with XYZ% recycled plastics”, “we (aka our unpaid volunteers) collected XYZ tons of plastic” etc. But who can answer how much goes back in? The sale of recycled clothes combined with low recycling rates means micro-fibers are being washed into the system; indirectly there’s an increase in brand equity resulting in overall sales increasing. I am not saying that there is no net benefit, but I’d like a thorough analysis. I’d like to know how much is taken out permanently and how much lands right back in the environment after a large corporation makes a quick profit flipping the item. Feels dirty, doesn’t it? On top of being highly profitable, these companies employ some of the smartest people on the planet. If anyone can provide such assessments it’s them, assuming they are willing to be transparent.

And just to avoid any misunderstandings here, unethical behavior can also be witnessed in the nonprofit sector as well as in the for-profit-non-profit intersection. We have seen several companies creating non-profit arms, which is admirable. Let’s face it, making money is a required foundation for generating a positive impact.

It is required to scale both the company itself and for the impact market through the limits to new entrants. Having said this, in some cases, we see questionable behavior. For example, intended name confusion can often be observed. In some cases, the consumer is not even aware that there is a for-profit entity running under the same name, thinking they support a charity. Looking at Form 990 disclosures may surprise some as the non-profit arm is often shockingly underfunded compared to the for-profit income generated. Add to this that many are supported by unpaid volunteers, often from low-income developing countries, and one might ask if the definition of “ethically acceptable” is being stretched here.

Unfortunately, these instances are not isolated but lead to spillovers. For example, we can see an increase in cheating resulting from in-group contagion. In The Honest Truth, Dan Ariely explains that we are much more likely to cheat if we witness someone we identify with, or whose group we belong to, cheating. We are also more likely to cheat when we believe that it is justified for the greater good. No matter what the greater good is, anyone reading this should realize that intentionally untransparent behavior may motivate more unethical behavior gradually turning positive impact tribes into bad actors. And for what? Are the people involved insufficiently confident of their product or services? Do they believe it is incorrect to mix purpose with profit? I am genuinely perplexed, especially as we know that, if such behavior is discovered, consumers may turn away from the company, ultimately destroying any movement built, and impact made. Lastly, one must only look to the business of politics to understand that a lack of transparency on the side of challengers opens opportunities for incumbents to attack and instill uncertainty. We need impact players and their efforts to survive any attack from big energy, big plastic, or big markets and for that, we need more transparency from the impact players. In the case of the non-profit-for-profit hybrid, a simple disclosure of how much revenue generated goes to their non-profit entities would be a start. How much profit ended up in the owners’ pockets of the for-profit entity and how does this compare to the efforts made by unpaid volunteers? Let the consumers and volunteers see what they are supporting and avoid attacks from special interests destroying the movement.

One thing should be noted, however. In both cases, I would argue that the supporting tribes have a genuine desire to do good despite the lack of transparency and greenwashing.

I do believe that most chemical engineers working on depolymerization are driven by a greater good and volunteers supporting what they believe is a non-profit are either unaware or do it to contribute positively to the world. As such, the above criticism is directed at the few masters of influence that knowingly exploit their tribes and not the tribes themselves.

This only leaves skill. As we have seen before, signs that ask visitors not to steal national park property have led to an increase in theft as they signaled that “everyone else does it too”. Clearly, whoever set up these signs had the right intent but did not possess the right skill. Similarly, studies have shown that introducing recycling may actually increase the consumption of resources which is a massive issue as, despite whatever consumer brands are trying to signal, overconsumption is the root cause of the issues the world is facing today. Currently, we are all screaming change yet only a small percentage knows how to achieve it. The noise is preventing any meaningful signal from emerging. In fact, sometimes the loudest and/or most charismatic receive the most attention, and in certain cases, they lack both skill and good intentions. We know that being charismatic can create a following, it is something that can be witnessed over and over again in cult leaders. Sometimes this can be further accentuated through strong symbolism à la Steve Jobs, a strategy copied by many highly influential and ethically questionable personalities. Elizabeth Holmes only needed to wear one iconic outfit to cement her name in people’s minds. And while Elizabeth Holmes was amazing at raising money and convincing others to follow her, she lacked the skill of executing what she promised, causing billions to evaporate as a result.

This is a fantastic example of authority meeting lack of skill, leading to an unfortunate outcome. Authority is powerful which reminds me of Robert Cialdini’s case study of a duty nurse receiving an instruction to administer ear drops into the right ear of a patient. Unfortunately, the physician abbreviated the instructions as “place in R ear” which led to the nurse putting the required number of drops into the patient’s anus. This occurred as a result of an expert giving an instruction that was taken literally. Now, imagine such instructions are provided by non-experts. That’s why people believe in saviors from space coming in flying saucers and 5G chips being inserted into our shoulders via COVID-19 vaccines. Skill matters. That said, the author of the aforementioned Hallmark card statement is a great salesperson, and he is genuine in his intent to do good. As such, there is a simple solution: team up with an expert that possesses the skills that you need. And with that, I hope to start a discussion on an experience-development model utilized to generate impact through entertainment (what we call Impactainment).