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Navigating social washing risk – a roadmap

Published on 23 October 2023

Retailers and consumer brands are increasingly aware of the significant risks associated with “greenwashing”. Those wanting to play in the green space must be able to back up their eco-friendly claims or face the wrath of regulators and consumers. But how many have got to grips with the equivalent business risks of being accused of “social washing”? I suspect significantly fewer.

Social washing is the practice of trading off perceived or advertised social credentials which are not reflected in the way the business operates. It’s about putting a black square or #BLM on your social media whilst having no people of colour in any leadership roles. It’s about selling rainbow flag adorned Pride merchandise but letting your trans employees be bullied. Like greenwashing, social washing is about profiting from what you say or project, without backing it up with what you do when no one is watching (or buying). Businesses fail to appreciate this disconnect at their peril, as illustrated beautifully by the Gender Pay Gap bot, set up with this simple mission: “If you tweet about #IWD2023 [International Women’s Day 2023], I’ll retweet your gender pay gap”. In other words, if you tell me yours, I’ll show you yours and you won’t like it.

But there is here an innate tension. Retailers and brands often want – need – to proactively engage on pressing social concerns of the day. There are many good and ethical drivers at play. You ask your employees to bring their whole selves to work but you know they can’t do that if issues affecting them outside work never infiltrate the door of the store or the walls of the boardroom. Your consumer base is diverse, and your products and services must speak to that diversity if you can hope to cater to their needs. You are responsible corporate citizens that understand you have an important role to play in the communities in which you operate. Staying silent on social issues is rarely a viable option if you are going to meet the
competing demands of your stakeholders. 

And not meeting their demands risks profit, market share, reputation and, ultimately, business longevity. No responsible leadership team would want to steer the boat in that direction.

The good news is that balancing this tension is not impossible. It’s not always easy. But it isn’t impossible. How precisely to strike that balance will vary from business to business, from issue to issue. After all, your sector is not homogenous, and neither are your markets or business priorities. That said, there are some key anchor points which can help you navigate the risks, obstacles and opportunities as illustrated in our roadmap:

Social washing roadmap

To hear more on these issues, sign-up to RPC's biggest retail and consumer event of the year, Retail Compass Live! on 1 November 2023 at our London office where our panel of leading voices will explore these themes and much more besides.

Click here to access the full Retail Compass Autumn 2023 edition