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7 months after George Floyd's death, corporations are still 'diversity washing' instead of making actual changes

Published by Business Insider on Sat, 09 Jan 2021


<p><img src="https://static3.businessinsider.com/image/5ff766516d61c10019cce374-1728/silent march_v11_cut 11_final .00_00_28_23.still005.jpg" border="0" alt="George Floyd protests" data-mce-source="Adam Miller/Business Insider" data-mce-caption="Protests over the police killing of George Floyd rage on more than three months later."></p><p></p><bi-shortcode id="summary-shortcode" data-type="summary-shortcode" class="mceNonEditable" contenteditable="false">Summary List Placement</bi-shortcode><p>In 1983, when the American environmentalist Jay Westerveld was on an undergraduate research trip, he was surprised to see a note at the famed Beachcomber Resort asking customers to re-use their towels to save the environment.&nbsp; "It basically said that the oceans and reefs are an important resource, and that reusing the towels would reduce ecological damage," <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/aug/20/greenwashing-environmentalism-lies-companies">Westerveld recalled</a>. The problem though, was that it was hypocritical for the resort to appear concerned about the impact of reusing towels, while at the same time, continuing to build more guest bungalows, which expanded the human footprint and contributed to environmental damage in the area.</p><p>That experience made such an impression on Westerveld that he wrote a college essay that included a phrase to the effect of "it all comes out in the greenwash." Playing on the metaphor of "whitewashing," or the sanitization of one's otherwise problematic image, Westerveld's turn of phrase led to a magazine column about the concept of "greenwashing," and the term soon caught on more broadly. It has been employed ever since to unmask efforts by corporations that benefit from virtuous environmental boasting while doing little, if anything, to engage in meaningful environmental practices.</p><p>The methods behind "greenwashing" have recently become applicable in a different field, namely Diversity, Equity and Inclusion ("DE&amp;I"). Business ethics typically lag behind cultural shifts, but corporate America tries mightily to keep up. The virtue signaling currently en vogue and the one corporate leaders are rushing to embrace is none other than what could be referred to as "diversity washing."&nbsp;</p><p>In true jump-on-the-bandwagon style, American corporations pushed out a slew of public statements in the wake of George Floyd's gruesome murder. From Fortune 500 companies to schools and nonprofits, even<a href="https://urldefense.com/v3/__https:/diannebondyyoga.com/diversity-training-for-yoga-teachers__;!!PIZeeW5wscynRQ!6CNiiSN7-T7EFNMf-bgLWnYSWtzWZn6OS8FuYV_nsvOXf47HkJjLvmYhBjnWBupnhJpO$"> local yoga studios</a>, a wide variety of organizations are committing to finally root out systemic racism, to strive for more equity in hiring and to create more inclusive workplaces.&nbsp;</p><p>Or are they' Are American organizations truly committed to making real change happen' Or will their declarations represent more of the empty rhetoric reflective of the current zeitgeist' Are these declarations mere window dressing meant to placate activists, customers, and employees'</p><p>While there is some movement toward systemic change, our research indicates that we should be wary of such overtures, as they can be, at best, superficial slogans for an Instagram feed or, at worst, cynical marketing opportunities, or much-needed PR for Wall Street.</p><p>So what does diversity washing look like' Ironically, it comes out in its purest form when the DE&amp;I initiatives are neither diverse, nor inclusiveand when the outcomes are neither effective, nor consequential.&nbsp;</p><p>It is when such efforts reside exclusively in the HR department with <a href="https://urldefense.com/v3/__https:/hbr.org/2020/09/do-you-know-why-your-company-needs-a-chief-diversity-officer__;!!PIZeeW5wscynRQ!6CNiiSN7-T7EFNMf-bgLWnYSWtzWZn6OS8FuYV_nsvOXf47HkJjLvmYhBjnWBkniis4b$">little or no buy-in from the C-Suite</a>. It is taking rushed actions <a href="https://urldefense.com/v3/__https:/www.wsj.com/articles/demand-for-chief-diversity-officers-is-high-so-is-turnover-11594638000__;!!PIZeeW5wscynRQ!6CNiiSN7-T7EFNMf-bgLWnYSWtzWZn6OS8FuYV_nsvOXf47HkJjLvmYhBjnWBqitNS7a$">to appoint Black "DE&amp;I Officers</a>" who may or may not have any real experience in the field or <a href="https://urldefense.com/v3/__https:/www.nytimes.com/2020/10/12/business/corporate-diversity-black-employees.html__;!!PIZeeW5wscynRQ!6CNiiSN7-T7EFNMf-bgLWnYSWtzWZn6OS8FuYV_nsvOXf47HkJjLvmYhBjnWBjF7VvUC$">relying on existing black employees</a> to address DE&amp;I issues in their companies in addition to doing their day jobs.&nbsp; &nbsp;&nbsp;</p><p>One of the reasons the term "greenwashing" has been so enduring over the past three plus decades is that the actual practice it describes <a href="https://urldefense.com/v3/__https:/journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1525/cmr.2011.54.1.64__;!!PIZeeW5wscynRQ!6CNiiSN7-T7EFNMf-bgLWnYSWtzWZn6OS8FuYV_nsvOXf47HkJjLvmYhBjnWBluuNXhL$">is still alive and well today</a>. Even now, corporations like <a href="https://urldefense.com/v3/__https:/www.nytimes.com/2007/11/14/business/14seaweed.html'pagewanted=all__;!!PIZeeW5wscynRQ!6CNiiSN7-T7EFNMf-bgLWnYSWtzWZn6OS8FuYV_nsvOXf47HkJjLvmYhBjnWBiSOyteo$">Lululemon</a> or <a href="https://urldefense.com/v3/__https:/www.nytimes.com/2015/09/24/business/international/volkswagen-test-rigging-follows-a-long-auto-industry-pattern.html__;!!PIZeeW5wscynRQ!6CNiiSN7-T7EFNMf-bgLWnYSWtzWZn6OS8FuYV_nsvOXf47HkJjLvmYhBjnWBhWHjcWc$">Volkswagen</a> scramble to signal their commitment to environmentalism even while their actions blatantly, or covertly, say otherwise.</p><p>During our research, we have found that any real, meaningful change in DE&amp;I takes a great deal of time, money and commitmentnot just putting up a new activist page on the website supporting a balanced workforce, or printing Black Lives Matter t-shirts for staff attending a one-off event to celebrate minority employees.</p><p>Now, at this pivotal moment in the field of DE&amp;I that has been carved out of death and suffering, organizations must step up to the difficult challenge at hand and turn their statements into action. Otherwise, we might end up talking about "diversity washing" as long as we have been discussing its environmental predecessor. The term might even enter our common lexicon. And that moniker is not one that any organization will want attached to their brand in the years to come.</p><p><em>Susan S. Harmeling is an associate professor of Clinical Entrepreneurship and an expert in business ethics at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and co-founder of Equitas Advisory Group, a new venture whose mission is to foster equity of opportunity for all employees.</em></p><p><em>Charles M. Henderson is a global diversity and leadership consultant in Johannesburg, South Africa, and co-founder of Equitas Advisory Group. He is also hard at work on his memoir, </em>Heroin to Harvard to Happiness<em>.</em></p><p><strong>SEE ALSO:&nbsp;<a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/president-trump-congress-senate-impeach-capitol-riot-insurrection-2021-1" >President Trump should be impeached</a></strong></p><p><a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/diversity-washing-greenwashing-george-floyd-corporations-black-lives-matter-2021-1#comments">Join the conversation about this story &#187;</a></p> <p>NOW WATCH: <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/how-parasite-delivered-one-of-the-best-twists-in-cinema-2020-2">What makes 'Parasite' so shocking is the twist that happens in a 10-minute sequence</a></p>
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