Why is everyone ethics washing?


This isn’t a simple question to answer. Partly because ethical decision-making and the action that follows (or doesn’t, as is common today) isn’t entirely limited to the space between our ears. It’s broader, deeper and inherently socio-political and socio-economic.

But just because this is kind of complex doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle it.

Let’s dive in and start a discussion.

Organisations are ethics washing

I was reading a book about speciality coffee earlier today. This quote from Seth Godin really stood out.

The book about coffee isn’t the point. The substance of the quote is.

I really buy into this idea. I believe in the power of collective action. I believe that indviduals – when working together towards some common goal – can achieve incredible things. I don’t believe our progress is exclusively tied to or limited by the ‘powers that be’. Institutions are important, yes. In fact, given how things work today they are essential. But they do not have to dictate what we can achieve. They shouldn’t ‘control’ us. They should work with us. And we should work with them. We are all nodes in a complex and potentially beautiful network.

I bring this quote up because it is directly relevant to the way we view the ethical intent to action gap.

Everywhere we go (virtually nowadays) we talk to leaders and practitioners within organisations that want to go good. They want their work to be a force for good. But, as we’ve called out before, they often feel constrained. The forces that hinder progress towards a better future often outweigh the forces that encourage it.

Let me offer up a very simple example.

Company A explicitly states that it values people’s privacy. They have a website. They use this website to communicate why they do what they do, how they do it, who they do it with and the impact what they do has. But, as soon as people land on their website (prior to establishing any actual relationship with the company), they are tracked. And not just a little, but a lot.

Company A is doing this because everyone else is doing in. They’ve read about programmatic advertising and its issues. They’ve read the reports that call out the fact the whole industry may be actively enabling the biggest data breach in history. Though this is the case, they feel stuck.

“What else can we do?”

“All of our competitors are doing this.”

“If we don’t engage in these activities, we will operate at a disadvantage. It will be harder and more expensive to grow our customer base and achieve our impact…”

Company A is stuck in a system where a lot of shit is broken.

And this is the point.

It’s bigger than any of us individually

But just because it’s big, the way it is, scary and hard to overcome doesn’t mean we can’t make progress.

We can design better systems. We can design these systems to make it easier to do the ethical things we say we want to do. Heck, these systems can actually incentivise these actions.

We are ethics washing today because we realise that ethical action is important. We care about it. Others care about it. We expect better. Others expect better.

Most people actually state their ethical intent wanting to follow through. Barriers get in the way. the same as they do for New Year’s resolutions. This intent-action gap is far too common.

The thing is, we actually need to do better. Our systems of living are unsustainable.

Which really brings us back to Seth’s quote. The time is now for peers to support one another to do what they always knew was ‘right’. We need to make the ethical actions we want to do easier. By gaining new working knowledge, developing new verifiable skills and supporting each other on the journey, we can take tiny, consistent steps. These tiny steps will compound. Over time we might look back and think, “Shit! Look for far we’ve come”.

With that said, what tiny ethical action are you doing today?

Big ❤️ as always.