Has authenticity become just another artifact of our shiny, pre-fab world, where nearly everything we encounter is created for consumption? Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard certainly thinks so. In his compelling book, Let My People Go Surfing , Chouinard recalls seeing someone wearing a sweatshirt with the word “authentic” emblazoned across the chest. “The fashion industry is so caught up with this idea of the ‘authentic,’” writes Chouinard, with characteristic brio, “that it has become another of those meaningless words.”
At a time when spin doctors are coaching brands on how to “make it real,” it sometimes seems like authenticity is at risk of becoming as fabricated as a fast-food chain. And yet, authenticity remains a core benchmark against which any company that seeks to “do good” must be judged. Authenticity comes to a company that is what it says it is. Only when a company’s actions align with its words does its story begin to ring true. So this week, I thought I’d blog on what it takes, as Smokey Robinson memorably put it, to be “really, really real.”
As Chouinard implies, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to parse what’s genuinely authentic from what’s authentically fake. Take, for example, the two faces of FedEx.
I once held FedEx in high regard, until I read Steven Greenhouse’s book, The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker . Greenhouse offers up some convincing allegations that FedEx abused and cheated its independent contractors so it could save nearly $400 million a year. Clearly, FedEx’s “good company” patina is a fake. Or is it?
Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that FedEx is taking an enlightened approach to the financial meltdown. Instead of firing employees, the carrier is preserving jobs by trimming paychecks. Senior exec’s salaries are getting as much as a 10% haircut; hourly workers aren’t affected. Compared to the slash-and-burn policies that have left millions of workers unemployed as hundreds of big companies announce super-sized layoffs, FedEx’s response is smart and responsible.
The same company that reportedly abused its independent contractors offers an enlightened way to limit the pain to its full-time employees. This poses a vexing question: How do we know if a big company like FedEx is truly good, a poser, or a mix of both?
At least in FedEx’s case, it seems that both faces—the good and the bad—amount to a portrait that’s really, really real.