Social washing is plaguing many growing industries, including fashion. Businesses market themselves as socially responsible without facts backing their claims.
Similar to greenwashing referring to an organization not being as eco-friendly as it seems, companies that practice social washing want a better image and profits while their activities aren't socially responsible.
Numerous businesses use marketing tactics to appear more sustainable and ethical than they truly are. They make misleading claims to attract conscious consumers.
That's simply because of rising social and environmental awareness. Consumers all over the world are starting to care more about how products are being made.
Buyers care about the environmental impact of their purchases and the well-being of supply chain workers. They want to make more mindful purchasing decisions and support companies they believe in.
Here is everything you need to know about social washing with some examples, how to spot organizations that aren't socially responsible, and what you can do about it.
In this article:
- Social washing definition
- Social washing vs greenwashing
- How to spot social washing
- Social washing examples
- Closing thoughts
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Social washing definition
A business or organization is social washing when it makes misleading claims about the social responsibility of its products or services to position itself in a better light for economic gains and public image.
Social washing also includes the following misleading marketing practices:
- bluewashing: using a membership to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) and adhering to its Ten Principles
- rainbow washing: misuse of the United Nations Global Goals For Sustainable Development (UNSDGs)
- pinkwashing: making deceptive LGBTQIA+ claims
Many companies associate themselves with these social initiatives, organizations, or movements to only demonstrate corporate social responsibility and sustainable governance.
Social washing aims to give off the image of having ethical standards without practicing them. Companies make commitments to universal sustainability principles and fundamental socially responsible policies but their implementation is lacking.
Pledging to abide by higher ethical standards respecting human and environmental rights means nothing if corporations aren't held accountable.
Many companies are involved in corporate sustainability or social responsibility initiatives. But failing to truly make business practices more ethical and sustainable is social washing.
Claiming participation in philanthropic or charity-based activities doesn't recognize or certify that a company has fulfilled its obligations.
Many businesses join voluntary social initiatives only to use them for economic gains, improve corporate image, and public relations.
Social initiatives aim to encourage businesses worldwide to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies. But many companies misuse them as a public relations instrument for social washing.
Social washing vs greenwashing
Social washing refers to misleading claims about the social responsibility of a company's products or services, whereas greenwashing concerns the environmental benefits.
Social washing and greenwashing are used by businesses and organizations to respectively appear to be more socially responsible and environmentally friendly than they truly are.
They are ways for companies to differentiate from the competition. By promising a more eco-friendly and ethical product or service, businesses catch customers' attention.
Social washing and greenwashing are marketing strategies used to increase sales and position brands in a better light. For consumers, it's very challenging to tell if an environmental or social claim is accurate or not.
That's why so many companies make false claims and easily get away with it. Consumers often make buying decisions based on their emotions.
Social washing and greenwashing make use of that behavior and tap into the good conscience of consumers.
The green movement is booming. Consumers are realizing the disastrous impact the growing economy has on the planet, underserved communities, and ecosystems.
Consumers all over the world are becoming increasingly more aware of the alarming rate we are currently destroying our home, the Earth. They care for the environment and society's bigger issues.
Companies want to be perceived as making positive environmental and social impacts to appeal to the conscious customer.
Adopting green and socially responsible practices in business is becoming a profitable strategy. Since consumers are willing to pay more for sustainable and ethical products, businesses expect high growth from a favorable image and public support.
Many brands and retailers market themselves as eco-friendly and socially responsible when they are not. This is called social washing and greenwashing and serves to appeal to conscious consumers.
They claim to reduce their environmental and social impacts when in fact a large proportion of their activities remains detrimental to the planet and its inhabitants.
Many companies employ farmers and workers from the poorest countries. They exploit local communities without any social or environmental stewardship. They make products under poor working conditions, without renewable energy, and using toxic chemicals.
Social washing and greenwashing aren't recent phenomenon. Already in the 1980s, the demand for eco-friendly and socially responsible products was rising. Many cases of greenwashing and social washing were reported.
Since then, presenting a sustainable and ethical image has become more and more strategic for businesses and organizations worldwide. Let's take a closer look at what you can do about it.
How to spot social washing
You can easily tell when a business or organization is social washing by identifying claims that aren't backed by any evidence, claims of a product or service being socially responsible without any supporting information.
Many businesses are still social washing today to appeal to conscious consumers, especially in the fashion industry. The market for ethical and sustainable products is growing rapidly, creating new opportunities for businesses.
Companies want to appear eco-friendly and socially responsible by claiming that their products have a lower impact on the environment or local communities when, in reality, their activities remain highly polluting and irresponsible.
Numerous consumer protection organizations around the world warn about social washing. They ask buyers to protect themselves from unfair and deceptive practices.
Many products and services don't have any environmental or social benefits. But companies keep marketing them as environmentally friendly and socially responsible.
They are social washing by only showing what consumers want to see. They aim to increase sales without considering the environment and the welfare of people first.
Deceptive claims hide what is going on behind the scenes. Claiming a product is socially responsible or ethically made without any supporting evidence or audit from third parties is misleading.
The best way to avoid social washing is to investigate and do a bit of research. Separate the companies that are truly making efforts from those that are only pretending to enjoy higher profit margins.
As a conscious consumer, you can tell when a company is social washing when you see:
- dirty companies making green products
- a product slightly better than the rest, especially when the rest is terrible
- irrelevant claims emphasizing one tiny attribute when everything else is not responsible
- fluffy, words, language, or terms with no clear meaning
- jargon or information that only a scientist could check or understand
- suggestive pictures that indicate unjustified impacts
- claims that are just not credible
- no proof or evidence to back up claims
- lies with totally fabricated claims or data
If you are a business or organization and want to avoid social washing when you market your products or services, you should:
- avoid making claims "in a vacuum" without evidence
- always bolster your claims with independent verification
- be as transparent as possible
- know your products' biggest impacts
- enable and encourage consumers to act
- understand your customers' wants and needs
- target different market segments in different ways
- anticipate game-changing technology and behaviors
- participate in rule-making at the regional, national, and international level
Social washing examples
Companies use social washing to increase sales and position their brand in a better light. Products that are often affected by social washing include fashion, food, automobile, consumer electronics, personal care, and cosmetics.
These are some businesses and organizations that have been accused of social washing in the past or recently.
Major fashion retailer & Other Stories used to make false production claims, pretending its products were created in Swedish factories under labor protection laws. In reality, they are designed in Sweden but produced in China, Bulgaria, and Bangladesh.
Primark has been under public scrutiny many times over with child labor scandals. The fast-fashion retailer can offer very low prices because it employs workers from the poorest countries of the world, such as India and Cambodia, and under terrible working conditions.
Cosmetics giant L'Oreal failed to combat modern slavery in its supply chains. It has been criticized for failing to disclose how it mitigates risks in its operations to ensure its supply chains are free of child labor and modern slavery.
Food and drink corporation Nestlé has been accused of using child labor, unethical production methods, and misleading marketing strategies too many times. It chose profits over the welfare of the people working for them.
The demand for environmentally friendly and socially responsible products continues to rise. People want products that are better for the environment and the people working in supply chains, without misleading claims or marketing messages.
Conscious consumers want to support and buy from companies they believe in. Businesses and organizations have to use accurate communication to remain credible.
The consequences of getting it wrong are seen as social washing and damaging to reputation. Consumers are very likely to punish organizations using social washing with fewer sales.
Avoiding deceptive environmental and social claims should be a concern to all companies, especially in the apparel and textile industry.
Social washing is already hurting so many industries as consumers are less likely to trust environmental and human rights-related claims in the future, and regulators will impose restrictions.
Social washing also prevents the development of a new sustainable and ethical economy. It slows down sustainability and social responsibility efforts drastically.
Companies that are social washing make it more difficult for consumers to understand the impacts of their purchasing decisions as they struggle to differentiate between valid and invalid claims.
Businesses have a strong role to play in improving the state of the planet and its inhabitants. They have to develop and communicate their role in environmental and social stewardship to earn the trust of consumers.
More brands and retailers should step up their efforts and communicate them effectively. More sustainability-focused companies are bound to have better performance as they concentrate on long-term strategy, not just short-term gains.
We are at a critical moment in redefining the role of business in society. Improving one's environmental and social reputation should not be the end goal, but instead making a meaningful contribution toward building a sustainable future.
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About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.