At the beginning of the new year, we usually set out new business goals. For the most part businesses have one goal in common: we would like to try to be more eco-conscious and to conduct business more ethically. Often we find ourselves adding “recycle more often”, “reuse what we can”, or “be more sustainable” to our goals for the coming year.
However, there is one factor that we need to take into consideration, yet often overlooked, and that is the corporations we decide to support. As much as we, as business owners, want to make a change in the world and our influence can make a difference, but we need to look towards the stakeholders we do business with and decide whether we will continue to support them.
The unfortunate truth is that we, as business owners, are sometimes deceived by other brands. There may be brands that appear socially responsible when in reality this is purely performative. This performative display of social responsibility is referred to as washing, to understand the full context of this lets clear up some terms. Washing creates distrust between companies and customers, here is everything you need to know about it.
What does diversity in an organisation look like?
Diversity means that there is a wide range of people who ensure that their perspective is represented in a department. There are many things that can make the members of a department diverse, such as through racial, socioeconomic, or cultural backgrounds, mental health, or even their different lifestyles.
In an organisation there are four main types of diversity that can occur: internal, external, organisational, and global.
These are the characteristics of a team or department, for instance their nationality, sexual orientation, and/or gender.
This refers to what forms a person’s identity, such as their religion, education, and socioeconomic status.
It is more associated with the different work experience, departments and rankings that promotes variety in a company. For instance two team members could be in the same department, but one member has 20 years of experience and the other has 2 years of experience.
This type of diversity speaks of the beliefs, culture, and political standpoints that governs our worldview.
What does washing mean?
Washing is a marketing tactic that organisations use to appear more socially responsible when in reality this is simply a type of performative activism. There are different types of washing that a corporation implements in an effort to gain more consumers. Companies often make use of a certain type of washing depending on what identity they want to create, it can range from using an individual as a token to running media campaigns.
Here are some examples of the types of washing that companies use:
During the month of June (also known as pride month) many companies change their logo to have the pride flag colours, or sell products that make use of these colours. This would be fine, even supported, if the companies had a good intention for using the pride flag colours.
But, the main intention behind using the colours, in some cases, is to gain more customers from the LGBTQIA+, community instead of showing support for inclusion and equality for the members community.
A way to fix rainbow washing is to show that you are a true ally not only during pride month, such as creating educational content about the LGBTQIA+, or raising awareness about mental health for the community.
Also referred to as the green-sheen is when a company showcases that they are environmentally conscious and forge a brand image that is deceptive. Brands that are in the retail, or food industry can greenwash customers by claiming that a product is recycled, or an item made of 100% cotton. When looking at these terms at first glance, we can’t help but assume that these products are eco friendly and supporting a good cause.
In some cases, you are able to dig deeper into a company’s annual reports, and usually there are a few consistencies you might notice. As an example; some companies make the claim that they will recycle your old clothing, but that clothing ends up burnt or in a garbage dump. The companies making these vague claims, show no proof about being environmentally friendly, or are simply deceiving their clients while causing more harm to the environment.
Some ways of rectifying green-washing it is important to remain transparent, if a product is not eco-friendly or 100% cotton, do not claim that it is. Another aspect can be obtaining materials from a well known eco-friendly supplier.
One of the lesser talked about types of washing is known as genderwashing, which is a tool companies use to gather more non-male customers. For genderwashing there are different variations that companies use to create a positive brand image.
A key element that companies showcase are their policies that help empower women. Though, some of these gender policies are meaningless as they go ignored by the companies claiming to implement them. It may also be the case that those same companies won’t address real corporate issues, such as institutional sexism and discrimination in the workplace against non binary employees.
The main goal of implementing diversity in an organisation is to create capable teams, whose team members can offer different perspectives. Some companies are ultimately missing the mark here: instead of providing an opportunity to minority groups, they are hiring individuals from minority groups and placing them into a role that has no real function in the company.
For instance, when a well known company or franchise employs a person of colour, and gives them a position or role with no function, the individual is being used to appeal to a wider customer base. The person of colour is not seen as a true asset to the company, rather they are being used for their ethnicity and is thus a token employee.
Spotting the washing
With any form of washing the intention is to mislead stakeholders, who want to support companies that are trying to be socially responsible. Meaning that when you first glance at a company they can seem like an ethical company that supports everyone and their employees are not working in sweatshops. However, searching further you notice that some of their claims seem vague and eventually you uncover that the working stations are not sweatshops but the conditions are on par with one. This means that as business owners we have to do further research into a company to determine whether we are being deceived or if they are being truthful.
So then, how can we tell if a company is truly socially responsible or if they are doing washing?
When looking into the social responsibility and reliability of a company’s actions look at how they respond when their true intentions are being made public. If the company issues a public apology that is well and good, however how do their actions change?
For instance in the case of diverse-washing, if it becomes public knowledge that a company is not offering fair opportunities to the members who are from minority groups, do they try to rectify their behaviour? Are barriers put in place to prevent future deception from occurring? In their annual report are they being transparent or vague about changing their behaviour?
How to spot the washing
- Find sources of information about the company’s social responsibility that is not on their own website.
- Follow some of the company’s employees on social media platforms such as twitter or linkedin.
- Read the annual reports the company releases and question whether it is being vague or detailed.
How to not be a diversity-washer?
When faced with criticism and accountability, usually our first instinct is to defend ourselves as quickly as possible and put out any potential fires. In turn, it is wiser to take a moment to step back; review the situation and determine whether the critique is valid or baseless.
In order to determine if critique is valid, in the case of diverse-washing, take time to discuss the issue with the members of the organisation who are part of a minority group. You can also make use of anonymous reviews to help guide your judgement.
To gain constructive feedback from your employees you need to create a safe space for them. They need to believe that they can discuss their experiences with the company and not face unnecessary consequences for voicing any possible issues. Once those issues come to light gather their input on how they believe change needs to occur for their and the companies betterment.
This process starts in the recruitment phase and the need to make recruitment more inclusive. There are various ways to make the process more inclusive such as having a diverse interview panel, promoting training against unconscious biases. Another means of showing that your company cares for minority groups is by offering internships or scholarships to underrepresented groups.
Diversity in the workplace needs to be fairly managed, such as when creating policies that look towards the individual’s religion. From there create policies that are flexible, for instance flexible schedules, when having a social gathering at work, have meal options that suit dietary restrictions, or fair employee benefits.
Another point that can be implemented is to build diverse teams in each department. The main issue behind diverse-washing is that members of minority groups feel like token members of the company with no real function. The solution to this is to create a team that consists of people from different races, backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, genders so that everyone in the company has a real function.
What to do when a brand is being unethical?
As a business owner discovering that a supplier or another business that you support is caught washing it can be a challenging situation. Overall there are two main options that are available:
- Ask for clarification – there is a possibility that the claims against the company washing are false. If the claims are baseless then there is no harm in continuing working with the company. However if the claims are true then that leads to the second option.
- Opt out – if the supplier or company you support is proven to be washing it might be better to work with a different more socially responsible company, as this company is no longer trusted by the public.
What to expect from a diverse team?
If a company is not familiar with implementing diverse teams in different departments there are some potential challenges that they need to overcome. One challenge can be communication, if a team is used to working with people from similar backgrounds they may experience some communication issues in terms of working with people from different backgrounds.
To overcome issues regarding communication the company can implement diversity training. The purpose of diversity training is to enhance interpersonal and communication skills amongst employees to create awareness about their differences. To achieve this purpose and aim participants of the training are taught about the different types of diversity and how to appreciate these differences instead of seeing them as an obstacle.
Diverse-washing is a waste of potential talent that can benefit the employees and the company itself – by hiring individuals from minority groups but placing them in non-functional positions. Having a diverse team can enhance innovation, communication, and create a connection between employees. They also bring a wide range of ideas due to the fact that each ethnic group has their own social experiences.
Companies should not perpetuate this us vs them mentality that diverse-washing ultimately endorses. Instead as ethical and capable business owners we need to create unity for our employees and companies. It is a new year and with the majority of customers becoming increasingly aware of washing we need to show that we are trustworthy and not trying to deceive them.