Social Governance….corporate perception that blue my mind!


How accurate is the general social picture when it comes to company image and perception?

In the ever evolving landscape of corporate communication, companies often resort to strategic messaging to create an illusion of virtue. This phenomenon, commonly referred to as ‘washing,’ comes in various hues, each representing a different facet of corporate misdirection. From environmental posturing to social responsibility claims, Ebonstone explores the spectrum of washing practices, revealing the governance failings that often accompany them.  

Whilst we are all familiar with the term greenwashing, this article will mainly focus on an organisation’s social behaviours…enter the room – the dangers of bluewashing! 

Bluewashing. In an era where corporate responsibility is in the spotlight, the phenomenon of bluewashing has emerged as a significant concern, diverting attention from real societal issues. Bluewashing occurs when organisations make superficial or token gestures towards social causes without genuinely addressing the core problems. Despite good intentions, these actions can have unintended consequences and harm the credibility of the organisations involved.   

Social reporting requires statements and disclosures in the same way as environmental reporting, so making false or misleading claims can be equally damaging. It is vital that a company only reports and articulates its social initiatives where it is confident it can evidence it upon further scrutiny, making the measurement and review of implemented social impact strategy even more important.  

An example of bluewashing can be found in Nestlé’s Child labour controversies in 2020. Nestlé, despite its extensive Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) efforts, faced allegations of child labour in its cocoa supply chain. The company’s bluewashing tactics were exposed when reports revealed that its commitment to ethical practices was not reflected in its supply chain management. 

Another stark example of bluewashing unfolded during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. The ‘Blackout Tuesday Movement,’ where organisations posted black squares on social media, initially aimed at solidarity, ended up overshadowing essential communication from activists. The sheer volume of black squares drowned out educational content, diluting the message and diverting attention from authentic activism.   

Bluewashing is not confined to online trends; it often permeates formal disclosures. Misleading data and imagery, particularly prevalent in annual reports, can create a façade of commitment to social causes. An example is seen in the fashion industry, where claims of ethical clothing production may conceal underlying labour and human rights issues within the supply chain.   

So, what can you do to avoid falling into the bluewashing trap? Organisations need to move beyond token gestures and focus on authentic contributions to social causes. Here are key considerations:  

  • First of all, implement inclusive policies and culture. Organisations should align their actions with their values, so before engaging in social issues, ensure that internal policies and culture reflect the principles being promoted externally.  
  • Next, ensure you align your ESG ambition with your central business strategy. Effective integration of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) initiatives seamlessly helps prevent ESG issues from being sidelined and underscores the organisation’s commitment to holistic responsibility.  
  • Resist the urge to jump on the bandwagon by contributing temporarily to a cause merely because it is popular. Authentic activism requires a sustained commitment to causes that align with the organisation’s core values.  
  • Include representation in your advertising by including marginalised groups consistently in marketing campaigns, avoiding the pitfall of exploiting social movements for profit without genuine contributions to positive change.  
  • Backup any social impact claims with evidence by setting measurable targets, track their progress, and transparently report on the results to build trust with stakeholders.  
  • Finally, ensure transparent reporting as accountability is vital. Organisations should be transparent about their social initiatives, acknowledging both successes and challenges. Stakeholders value honesty over misleading information.  

As businesses increasingly recognise the importance of contributing to societal well being, the pitfalls of bluewashing come into sharper focus. While many principles align with those for greenwashing, it is essential to recognise the nuances and be vigilant against performative activism. Striving for authentic social initiatives, underpinned by transparent reporting and evidence backed claims, not only safeguards against bluewashing but also fosters genuine positive impact. In an age where stakeholders demand authenticity, organisations must prioritise purposeful action over token gestures to drive meaningful change. 

 

Whilst bluewashing covers a broad range of social topics there are further ‘sub-types’ of bluewashing which highlight specific social groups or issues. Ebonstone explores more shades of corporate washing.   

Greenwashing, a term that gained traction in the era of climate consciousness, involves companies portraying an environmentally friendly image without making substantial changes to their practices. Accidental or not, investors and auditors are becoming more meticulous in their review of reports and disclosures, meaning companies need to ensure the clear communication of a well understood internal environmental efforts.   

Failure to live up to your own hype can lead to accusations of greenwashing and further damage to reputation. For example, BP’s Campaign in 2000 where they rebranded as ‘Beyond Petroleum’ suggested a commitment to renewable energy. However, the company continued to heavily invest in fossil fuels, leading to accusations of greenwashing and a significant blow to its credibility after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. 

Purplewashing specifically centres around the disingenuous embrace of diversity and involves companies exaggerating their external commitment to diversity and inclusion, whilst concealing discriminatory practices towards female equality or empowerment. We find an example in Google’s diversity crisis in 2017, where Google faced a public relations crisis when an internal memo surfaced, revealing discriminatory views on gender diversity within the company. This exposed a stark contrast between the company’s purported commitment to inclusivity and the reality of its corporate culture. 

Rainbow washing involves the profiteering from token LGBTQ+ support and occurs when companies exploit LGBTQ+ symbols and messaging, especially during Pride Month, without making substantive efforts to support LGBTQ+ causes within their culture. You may recall an example in 2019 when H&M faced backlash for its Pride themed collection after revelations about the harsh working conditions in its supply chain. Critics accused the company of rainbow washing, arguing that it was using LGBTQ+ symbols to divert attention from its labour related shortcomings. 

Woke washing occurs when companies adopt superficial or insincere social justice stances to appeal to socially conscious consumers in order to promote its brand. Sometimes referred to as ‘performative activism’, woke washing is often seen as hollow social activism where an organisation jumps onto the bandwagon of a particular cause, but withdraws support once it is no longer in the spotlight or of further benefit to its’ image. 

In 2017, Pepsi’s ‘Live for Now’ ill fated advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner attempted to capitalise on social justice movements. The commercial was widely criticised for trivialising real world protests, highlighting the dangers of woke washing and inauthentic attempts to align with social causes. 

Red washing, whilst similar to woke washing, involves companies using marketing strategies to align themselves with social ideologies or causes specifically within a political sphere or towards indigenous groups. It occurs where symbolic support lacks any authentic effort to minimise the discrimination face related to the topic. 

In 2020, Facebook faced scrutiny for allowing misleading political advertisements on its platform. The company was accused of red washing, as its commitment to fostering democratic discourse clashed with its tolerance for deceptive political messaging. It can also occur where businesses are promoting the rights of local indigenous people whilst simultaneously denying job opportunities (unfairly) to those same people they claim to support.  

Sports washing distorts a positive image through sports affiliation and involves leveraging sports associations or sponsorships to distract from negative corporate practices. This can occur at national level where a country will host an international sporting events to move attention away from their own political or social issues.  It can also happen when an organisation financially supports or sponsors prevalent sporting events or teams in order to benefit from the positive perception of sport, deflecting attention from various issues such as human rights neglect in the supply chain, corruption or negative environmental impact, etc. 

Qatar’s FIFA World Cup Controversy in 2022 provides an example where Qatar faced allegations of human rights abuses in the construction of facilities in preparation for the FIFA World Cup. Critics argued that the country engaged in sports washing by using the tournament to deflect attention from its human rights violations. 

Ultimately, the spectrum of washing practices within the corporate world is vast and varied, showcasing the lengths to which companies go to shape public perception. Governance failings associated with these tactics highlight the need for increased transparency, accountability, and authentic commitment to positive change. As consumers become more discerning, it is crucial for companies to move beyond the art of illusion and focus on genuine ethical practices that align with their professed values. Only through sincere efforts can businesses hope to build lasting trust and credibility in an era where authenticity reigns supreme. 

If any part of this article has raised a question for you and your organisation, please contact the team here at Ebonstone to talk it through. We’d be happy to help. 

 

 

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