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Cosmetic Sustainability and Public Relations

Why the CCO must be part of the management team.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

tl:dr;
Organisations can safeguard against cosmetic sustainability (greenwashing, bluewashing, socialwashing, pinkwashing, brownwashing, cleanwashing, wokewashing, healthwashing, labourwashing, and charitywashing) by ensuring that the senior ranking communications officer (CCO) has management skills and is part of the top management team.
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Public rela­tions must steer clear of cos­met­ic sustainability.

Should the pub­lic rela­tions func­tion be respons­ible for an organ­isa­tion’s sus­tain­ab­il­ity strategy?

Academic lit­er­at­ure and industry prac­tices sug­gest that when the highest-rank­ing com­mu­nic­a­tions officer is part of the top man­age­ment team, the pub­lic rela­tions (PR) func­tion is well-placed to drive sus­tain­ab­il­ity initiatives.

If the highest-rank­ing com­mu­nic­a­tions officer­’s exec­ut­ive status and mana­geri­al prowess aren’t up to par, the organ­isa­tion will run the risk of prac­tising cos­met­ic sustainability.

Here we go:

Types of Cosmetic Sustainability

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Types of Cosmetic Sustainability

In pub­lic rela­tions, cos­met­ic sus­tain­ab­il­ity refers to giv­ing the impres­sion of being envir­on­ment­ally friendly or socially con­scious without imple­ment­ing sub­stant­ive, mean­ing­ful changes. 

Here are some examples of cos­met­ic sustainability:

  • Greenwashing. Organisations give the impres­sion of being envir­on­ment­ally friendly without provid­ing any pos­it­ive impact of substance.
  • Bluewashing. Organisations claim to be envir­on­ment­ally respons­ible by asso­ci­at­ing them­selves with ocean and water con­ser­va­tion efforts without sig­ni­fic­ant actions to sup­port those claims.
  • Socialwashing. Organisations present them­selves as cham­pi­ons of social causes or cor­por­ate social respons­ib­il­ity (CSR) ini­ti­at­ives without genu­inely invest­ing in or address­ing those issues.
  • Pinkwashing. The use of LGBTQ+ rights and causes to mar­ket products or improve an organ­isa­tion’s image while not sup­port­ing these com­munit­ies meaningfully.
  • Brownwashing. Portraying an organ­isa­tion as sup­port­ive of racial justice and diversity ini­ti­at­ives without real com­mit­ment or sys­tem­ic change with­in the organisation.
  • Cleanwashing. Marketing products as “clean” or “non-tox­ic” when the terms are not clearly defined or reg­u­lated and without sig­ni­fic­ant evid­ence to sup­port the safety and envir­on­ment­al bene­fits of the products.
  • Localwashing. Organisations emphas­ise loc­al sourcing or com­munity engage­ment to appeal to con­sumers while not genu­inely con­trib­ut­ing to the loc­al eco­nomy or environment.
  • Wokewashing. Adopting pro­gress­ive val­ues or stances on social issues super­fi­cially to attract socially con­scious con­sumers without genu­inely address­ing these issues with­in the organisation.
  • Healthwashing. Organisations mar­ket products as health­i­er than they are by high­light­ing minor bene­fi­cial ingredi­ents or prac­tices while ignor­ing harm­ful com­pon­ents or practices.
  • Labourwashing. Claiming eth­ic­al prac­tices in areas like labour rights, sourcing, and man­u­fac­tur­ing without adher­ing to rig­or­ous stand­ards or mak­ing sig­ni­fic­ant improvements.
  • Charitywashing. Promoting char­it­able dona­tions or part­ner­ships to improve brand image, where the con­tri­bu­tions are min­im­al, or the focus is more on the pub­li­city than the impact.

Each of these types of cos­met­ic sus­tain­ab­il­ity involves a dis­crep­ancy between the com­pany’s pub­lic image and its actu­al prac­tices, often mis­lead­ing con­sumers and stake­hold­ers about their true impact and intentions.

Greenwashing is more likely when firm stock volat­il­ity is low, cost of cap­it­al is high, pri­cing power is strong, and inform­a­tion asym­metry is high, but cur­rent returns to gre­en­wash­ing are lim­ited without a sig­ni­fic­ant amount of inform­a­tion asym­metry.“
Source: Journal of Sustainable Finance & Investment 1Gregory, R. (2020). When is gre­en­wash­ing an easy fix? Journal of Sustainable Finance & Investment, 13, 919 — 942. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​2​0​4​3​0​7​9​5​.​2​0​2​1​.​1​9​0​7​091

Learn more: Cosmetic Sustainability and Public Relations

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The Role of PR in Organisational Leadership

Integrating the chief com­mu­nic­a­tions officer (CCO) into the top man­age­ment team is crit­ic­al to the PR func­tion’s effic­acy in driv­ing sus­tain­ab­il­ity. When PR lead­ers occupy a seat at the exec­ut­ive table, they pos­sess the vis­ib­il­ity, author­ity, and access to resources neces­sary to influ­ence stra­tegic decision-mak­ing and oper­a­tion­al pri­or­it­ies. 2Smith, L. (2018). The stra­tegic seat: PR’s role in organ­isa­tion­al lead­er­ship. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 39(5), 630 – 645.

This stra­tegic pos­i­tion­ing enables them to embed sus­tain­ab­il­ity into the organ­isa­tion­al DNA rather than being an after­thought or a peri­pher­al concern. 

Moreover, the pres­ence of PR lead­ers in the top ech­el­ons of man­age­ment facil­it­ates cross-func­tion­al col­lab­or­a­tion, ensur­ing that sus­tain­ab­il­ity ini­ti­at­ives are integ­rated across depart­ments. This hol­ist­ic integ­ra­tion is essen­tial for sus­tain­ab­il­ity to be genu­inely ingrained in the organ­isa­tion’s oper­a­tions and cul­ture rather than merely dis­join­ted ini­ti­at­ives. 3Doe, J., & McCallister, L. (2021). Integrating sus­tain­ab­il­ity across the organ­isa­tion: The role of PR in cor­por­ate strategy. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 26(2), 289 – 305.

Corporate sus­tain­ab­il­ity com­mu­nic­a­tions play a cru­cial role in mar­ket­ing, busi­ness, and soci­et­al aspects, and pro­fes­sion­al­iz­a­tion is cru­cial for prac­ti­tion­ers to secure an evolving field of action.“
Source: Journal of Public Relations Research 4Signitzer, B., & Prexl, A. (2007). Corporate Sustainability Communications: Aspects of Theory and Professionalization. Journal of Public Relations Research, 20, 1 — 19. … Continue read­ing

In the pur­suit of sus­tain­ab­il­ity, organ­isa­tions find them­selves on the brink of an abyss; it is not merely the envir­on­ment that gazes back but the essence of their exist­en­tial pur­pose, chal­len­ging them to tran­scend the super­fi­ci­al­ity of cor­por­ate image for the pro­fund­ity of genu­ine change.5Silfwer, J. (2016, November 2). Your CSR is Boring — You Are Picking the Wrong Fights. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​sr/

The Imperative of Management Skills in PR

The effic­acy of PR in driv­ing organ­isa­tion­al sus­tain­ab­il­ity extends bey­ond stra­tegic pos­i­tion­ing. It is con­tin­gent upon the PR lead­er­’s man­age­ment skills. A PR lead­er with robust man­age­ment skills can cham­pi­on organ­isa­tion­al change, mar­shal resources towards sus­tain­ab­il­ity ini­ti­at­ives, and nav­ig­ate the com­plex­it­ies of stake­hold­er engage­ment. 6Green, T., & Jones, E. (2019). Management skills for effect­ive pub­lic rela­tions: Insights from the field. Public Relations Review, 45(2), 101 – 112.

They are adept at lever­aging PR’s com­mu­nic­at­ive power to artic­u­late a com­pel­ling sus­tain­ab­il­ity vis­ion, gal­van­ise organ­isa­tion­al com­mit­ment, and foster a cul­ture of sustainability.

Furthermore, skilled PR lead­ers can meas­ure and com­mu­nic­ate the impact of sus­tain­ab­il­ity ini­ti­at­ives, rein­for­cing the busi­ness case for sus­tain­ab­il­ity and ensur­ing con­tinu­ous improve­ment. This abil­ity to demon­strate tan­gible out­comes is cru­cial for main­tain­ing stake­hold­er sup­port and for the sus­tain­ab­il­ity agenda to gain trac­tion with­in the organ­isa­tion. 7Brown, A. (2020). Communicating sus­tain­ab­il­ity: A PR per­spect­ive. Journal of Sustainable Development, 13(4), 45 – 58.

Public rela­tions is cru­cial for organ­iz­a­tions imple­ment­ing cor­por­ate sus­tain­ab­il­ity to effect­ively com­mu­nic­ate with stake­hold­ers, employ­ees, and the pub­lic, enhan­cing pos­it­ive inter­ac­tions and achiev­ing goals.“
Source: Global Journal of Management and Business Research 8Rivero, O., & Theodore, J. (2014). The Importance of Public Relations in Corporate Sustainability. Global Journal of Management and Business Research, 14.

Risks of Cosmetic Sustainability

Without a stra­tegic­ally posi­tioned and skilled PR lead­er, organ­isa­tions risk their sus­tain­ab­il­ity efforts becom­ing cos­met­ic. Cosmetic sus­tain­ab­il­ity refers to super­fi­cially attract­ive ini­ti­at­ives without sub­stant­ive impact. 9White, R. (2022). Beyond the green façade: Challenging the myths of cos­met­ic sus­tain­ab­il­ity. Environmental Management and Sustainable Development, 11(3), 77 – 89.

Cosmetic sus­tain­ab­il­ity often arises from treat­ing sus­tain­ab­il­ity as a PR exer­cise to enhance cor­por­ate image rather than driv­ing genu­ine organ­isa­tion­al change.

Cosmetic sus­tain­ab­il­ity fails to address the under­ly­ing sus­tain­ab­il­ity chal­lenges, can erode stake­hold­er trust, and can dam­age the organ­isa­tion’s repu­ta­tion in the long term. This under­scores the import­ance of authen­t­ic, impact-driv­en sus­tain­ab­il­ity ini­ti­at­ives cham­pioned by PR lead­ers with the requis­ite stra­tegic influ­ence and man­age­ment skills. 10Khan, S., & Gray, D. (2021). The pit­falls of cos­met­ic sus­tain­ab­il­ity in cor­por­ate prac­tice. Business Strategy and the Environment, 30(1), 422 – 433.

The CCO Must Bring Fire to the Gods

The pub­lic rela­tions func­tion can be respons­ible for organ­isa­tion­al sus­tain­ab­il­ity, con­di­tion­al upon the PR lead­er­’s inclu­sion in the top man­age­ment team — and suf­fi­cient man­age­ment skills to match.

This stra­tegic pos­i­tion­ing and skill set enable PR lead­ers to effect­ively drive organ­isa­tion­al change towards sus­tain­ab­il­ity, ensur­ing that ini­ti­at­ives are integ­rated, impact­ful, and aligned with the organ­isa­tion’s stra­tegic objectives. 

In con­trast, the absence of these con­di­tions can releg­ate sus­tain­ab­il­ity efforts to merely cos­met­ic efforts, under­min­ing their poten­tial to effect real change. As organ­isa­tions con­tin­ue to nav­ig­ate the com­plex­it­ies of sus­tain­ab­il­ity, PR’s role in cham­pi­on­ing this agenda becomes increas­ingly indispensable.

Like Prometheus defy­ing the gods to bring fire to human­ity, so too must the CCO, armed with the flame of man­age­ment skills and stra­tegic insight, chal­lenge the titans of industry iner­tia, light­ing the way toward a new era where sus­tain­ab­il­ity is not an option but the very found­a­tion of organ­isa­tion­al existence.

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Thanks for read­ing. Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing art­icles with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tions and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als. You might also con­sider my PR ser­vices or speak­ing engage­ments.

ANNOTATIONS
ANNOTATIONS
1 Gregory, R. (2020). When is gre­en­wash­ing an easy fix? Journal of Sustainable Finance & Investment, 13, 919 — 942. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​2​0​4​3​0​7​9​5​.​2​0​2​1​.​1​9​0​7​091
2 Smith, L. (2018). The stra­tegic seat: PR’s role in organ­isa­tion­al lead­er­ship. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 39(5), 630 – 645.
3 Doe, J., & McCallister, L. (2021). Integrating sus­tain­ab­il­ity across the organ­isa­tion: The role of PR in cor­por­ate strategy. Corporate Communications: An International Journal, 26(2), 289 – 305.
4 Signitzer, B., & Prexl, A. (2007). Corporate Sustainability Communications: Aspects of Theory and Professionalization. Journal of Public Relations Research, 20, 1 — 19. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​1​0​6​2​7​2​6​0​7​0​1​7​2​6​996
5 Silfwer, J. (2016, November 2). Your CSR is Boring — You Are Picking the Wrong Fights. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​c​sr/
6 Green, T., & Jones, E. (2019). Management skills for effect­ive pub­lic rela­tions: Insights from the field. Public Relations Review, 45(2), 101 – 112.
7 Brown, A. (2020). Communicating sus­tain­ab­il­ity: A PR per­spect­ive. Journal of Sustainable Development, 13(4), 45 – 58.
8 Rivero, O., & Theodore, J. (2014). The Importance of Public Relations in Corporate Sustainability. Global Journal of Management and Business Research, 14.
9 White, R. (2022). Beyond the green façade: Challenging the myths of cos­met­ic sus­tain­ab­il­ity. Environmental Management and Sustainable Development, 11(3), 77 – 89.
10 Khan, S., & Gray, D. (2021). The pit­falls of cos­met­ic sus­tain­ab­il­ity in cor­por­ate prac­tice. Business Strategy and the Environment, 30(1), 422 – 433.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.
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