First coined in 1992 by playwright Steve Tesich in an essay for The Nation, and brought to the fore of public consciousness by being labeled Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year for 2016, “post-truth” refers to a state of society where rhetoric and emotion appear to have more importance to the average person than fact or substance. Given the campaign tactics used in both the U.K. Brexit referendum and the U.S. Presidential Election, it is not surprising that this term’s usage increased by 2,000% from 2015 to 2016 (Oxford Dictionaries). And given the results of both of these democratic processes, it may be safe to say that we are indeed living in a post-truth world.
What are the consequences for sustainability marketing? Studies suggest that consumers are increasingly sceptical of sustainability claims from companies (GutCheck), and find it hard to disseminate truth from lies, relevant from irrelevant, and valid from invalid. When facts seem to have less importance than repetitive catch phrases, how do truly sustainable companies compete against popular competitors who can simply lie their way into consumers’ homes and lives? Is a shiny catch phrase more important than real solutions?
Interestingly, it would appear that consumers hold the companies they purchase from to a higher degree of scrutiny than their political leaders. Volkswagen’s month-over-month sales dropped sharply for almost a year following its “Dieselgate” scandal (Bloomberg), and yet Donald Trump can brag about sexually assaulting women mere weeks before the election and still receive 42% of his votes from women (NY Times). Of course, the marketplace offers far more options than a two-party political system or a leave/remain vote. If there were indeed only two car manufacturers to choose from, and the other manufacturer was also accused of criminal misdoings, perhaps Volkswagen’s sales wouldn’t have dropped at all.
Despite the results of recent democratic decisions and the post-truth environment that allowed them to occur, I believe it is still in companies’ best interests to be truthful and transparent. Now more than ever, the public need to trust in some of their institutions. I see this as an opportunity for upstanding businesses to reinspire faith in truth, rather than exploit the murky media landscape that vitriolic politics have created.