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It’s become a buzz word recently – people are talking about it, brands are doing it, but what IS woke washing? And does it affect you?
What IS Woke Washing?
Woke Washing happens when companies and brands adopt ethical and progressive values within their advertising. But crucially, they do this only to bring in more profit. What they don’t do, is follow through with these values in their business models, supply chains and in the products themselves.
81% of millennials say they expect their favorite brands and companies publically state their position on social and environmental change. So is it really a surprise that creating content all about progressive values has become a marketing staple? The Millennial market is a huge one. And so media-savvy that companies can’t shy away from commenting on the big questions.
Before we get further into woke washing, it’s important to understand something else first – Brand Activism.
Brand Activism: Buying into the Uncertainty of Now
The millennial generation, in particular, is growing up in a world so very different from the one of 20, or even 10 years ago. The environmental crisis has become very real, very quickly. The future is uncertain. Social injustice, institutional sexism, racism and discrimination of every kind are rising to the surface of our perception. And it’s ALL being reported instantaneously, straight to the devices in our hands, thanks to the immediacy of social media.
On top of this, our Political leaders aren’t the rock-solid, honorable and reliable people they used to be (hmmm… were they ever?) SO WHO can we trust to get us out of these existential and humanitarian crises?
Can WE BE the Change, Ourselves?
In this age of sovereignty and growing personal power, can we make the necessary changes ourselves? Perhaps. But this is a major transition time. And whilst we figure that one out, there’s a whole cacophony of companies and corporations only too happy to make us exactly the promises we most want to hear.
Enter Brand Activism
If you’re buying into a brand that tells you in its advertising that it’s taking action to make the world a better place, well, you’re helping, aren’t you? If you’re spending money on products from companies claiming to actually improve inequality/the environment/animal rights (delete as appropriate) then you’re part of the solution, aren’t you?
And this is something we all want, right? To be someone to make a difference?
The Body Shop
Brand Activism has been happening for decades already – the Body Shop’s a great example. Anita Roddick opened her first shop in Brighton, UK in 1976 and went on to become one of the forerunners of ethical consumerism. An animal rights activist, and environmental campaigner, Roddick was the poster child for early Brand Activism. Using her platform to affect real changes in the way product supply chains operated, she brought ethics to the table. Let’s not forget that 30 years later, the Body Shop sold to cosmetics giant L’Oriel for £652m – a company given the lowest possible rating by Ethical Consumer Magazine, due to its appalling record on Animal Testing. Roddick claimed in a 2016 interview that this gave her power as a “Trojan horse”, able to enter into the heart of big business and affect change there. (But that’s another story).
More recently (and as the collective conscience has opened up to more of the issues facing humanity) many other brands have been engaging in activism.
Just over a week after President Trump signed the order temporarily refusing entry to the US by refugees, Airbnb aired an ad during the prime Super Bowl spot titled “We Accept”. The ad showed people from a variety of different nationalities, ethnicities, and backgrounds, beneath the words “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.”
Over the last few years, Water.org has partnered with Stella Artois in the ‘Buy a Lady a Drink’ campaign. This hugely successful initiative fronted by Matt Damon promises that for every limited edition bottle purchased, a months’ worth of clean water is provided to women and their families in developing countries. For every limited-edition 6 pack purchased from a supermarket, six months’ worth of water will be provided.
These are just a couple of examples of highly effective brand activism. Effective, in that they serve to highlight social issues, be of some benefit to those issues AND raise awareness of their own brand. Because let’s not forget – the aim of marketing around the globe is to make YOU aware of brands, so you’ll spend your money on them.
So when does Brand Activism turn into Woke Washing?
Only this month, after publishing a widely shared article on his companies website, Unilever CEO Alan Jope said at the Cannes Lions Advertising Conference that corporate “woke-washing” is “polluting purpose.” This comes after a number of recent ad campaigns appropriated very real social issues, without anything to back up their use as marketing material.
Most notably was Pepsi’s ad starring Kendall Jenner, in which she attends a protest, hands the riot police a Pepsi, and then everyone has a damn good time. Touching on SO many real-life conversations, from Black Lives Matter to the climate protests, to whitewashing and white supremacy, but doing nothing to truly address any of them, Pepsi withdrew the ad a day later and issued an apology.
The clothing manufacturer Lacoste recently released a limited edition of polo shirts, each embroidered with one of 10 endangered animals, instead of its usual trademark crocodile. The company pledged all profits to from those sales to support the work of IUCN.
What it failed mention is that it also sells gloves made from deer leather, and cow leather handbags. Where do profits from those sales go…?
Comic Relief & The Spice Girls
Earlier this year in the UK, the Spice Girls fronted a campaign as part of Comic Relief supporting gender equality by selling T-shirts. These were emblazoned with the message “#IWannaBeASpiceGirl” on the front and “gender justice” on the back. It later emerged that the T-shirts were being produced in sweatshops in Bangladesh, where women worked for 16 hours a day, were paid far less than the living wage, and were verbally abused if targets weren’t met. Girl Power clearly doesn’t reach as far as Bangladesh.
IS Woke Washing Really All That Bad?
If woke washing serves to raise awareness of good causes in the world, then can it really be a bad thing?
When brands engage in woke washing as a marketing ploy and fail to actually show any integrity to their claims, then yes, it’s a bad thing.
It’s a lie.
An attempt to convince you, and me of something that’s just not true. But worse than that, it potentially diverts the energy and effort that could be spent on genuine activism. Because if you’re already investing in a company that “acts” on your behalf, benefiting causes you believe in, well, you’re doing your bit already, aren’t you?
No. It’s a little like sitting at home behind your twitter handle, signing petition after petition but not engaging in real life change. Your conscience may feel clear, but you’re still sitting pretty on the sidelines.
SO How Do You Know if a Brand You’re Buying From is Woke Washing?
It’s easy with the more high profile cases – like Pepsi, Gillette (and its controversial appropriation of #MeToo references in their “Best a Man Can Be” campaign) and the Spice Girls, for example. But how can you be sure a brand is engaging in true activism, and not woke washing?
Maybe this is where sovereignty will find its place.
Do the work yourself, to figure out whether a brand you’re buying from is truly aligning with the values it claims.
- Research the company. Look at their back story, the story of their owners and CEOs.
- Ask Questions – email the company, and ask direct questions about what they’re doing for causes they claim to be supporting.
- Look at their supply chain. Where do the ingredients or parts of their products come from? Are they clear about this? Transparent, or vague?
- Look at their parent company and their ethics and values. For example, the Body Shop’s parent company became L‘Oriel. Innocent Smoothies (which began as an independent start-up) is now 90% owned by Coca Cola. Tom’s of Maine, a line of natural toiletries, is owned by Colgate-Palmolive. I’m not saying there’s inherently anything wrong with this, but knowledge is power. And this kind of knowledge may affect your spending choices.
- Use your intuition. Yes, really. What does your gut tell you about a company? What energy do you feel coming from it? Is this energy something you want to align with?
The key is, to not just blindly buy into clever marketing campaigns.
However much you may want to believe your favorite brand is fighting your corner, the truth is that big business has one aim. To stay in business. Which requires you to spend your money with them – and they’ll often go to any lengths to make this happen. So open your eyes (and your heart) and start to make hyper-informed choices. Support true brand activism, and call out woke washers.
But most of all, however you choose to spend your money ignite your inner activist. The world needs you.
Are you helping to affect change in the world, using your power as a conscious consumer?
Which are your favorite brands that actually do good in the world? Share with us in the comments below…