By Guest Contributor Sangeeta Waldron
Author of Corporate Social Responsibility is Not Public Relations, Sangeeta Waldron, explains what happens when CSR goes wrong due to inauthentic claims and performative sustainability schemes.
When companies feign interest in company responsibility to improve their bottom line, it is known as greenwashing; a term that was coined in the 1980s to describe shameful corporate environmental claims. It has since become a familiar term for companies pretending to be interested in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) to improve their bottom line. We know that people like to support companies that are socially conscious, so when a corporation greenwashes they’re setting themselves up for failure. Feigning interest in social responsibility can have short-term benefits, but if — or rather, ‘when’ — you’re discovered, it can have a lasting negative impact on your reputation.
Now in the age of the internet, it’s much harder to hide errors and controversy, and so many companies have built their mission around the idea of making the world better.
THE BRAND’S WHO HAVE SUFFERED
We’ve all heard of Nike’s hurdles involving sweatshops and not paying their workers properly in the ‘90s. Or, the Nestlé baby milk scandal, where the brand targeted the poor in discouraging breastfeeding and aggressively pushing its baby formula in less economically-developed countries. Nestlé made it seem that their infant formula was almost as good as a mother’s milk, which is unethical for many reasons. The two brands have never been able to shake off these negative stories, which pop up from time to time despite the good things they may have done since then.
A recent example, is the online apparel retailer Boohoo generated negative PR in the summer of 2020 with allegations that factories in the UK that supply the brand were guilty of worker exploitation. They allegedly payed their staff below the minimum wage and failed to provide proper protection during the COVID-19 outbreak. Following these allegations, which led to major investors severing ties with the brand, Boohoo ordered a full independent review of its supply chain, promising to terminate relationships with any suppliers found to be non-compliant with the brand’s code of conduct. While a positive move, the company suffered significant damage to its share price and brand reputation that could have been avoided.
Another example was Burger King’s special offering for ‘Veganuary,’ the movement to promote a vegan lifestyle for the month of January. Burger King marked the occasion by launching a plant-based hamburger, but its soya-based burger was being cooked on the same grill as the meat burgers, and couldn’t be eaten by vegans. The story was picked up by the press and railed against on social media. The fast-food chain responded by saying that the burger was “for flexitarians and designed for people who want to cut down on their meat consumption, not cut out meat completely.” Using an awareness month as a hook to launch a product that isn’t actually suitable for your audience is just spin.
Actions that embody cultural intelligence and awareness are necessary when tackling any campaign strategy. Brands need to voice an understanding of the damage they can cause — and commit to doing otherwise —rather than try to justify their actions.
In the global marketplace, and the culture at large, audience is power. Consequently, keeping companies accountable for the way they use that power is increasingly in the hands of consumers. And this, inevitably, helps sculpt the relationship between companies and customers.
Volkswagen provides a textbook example. VW’s green initiative helped it become the world’s leading car manufacturer, as people were convinced that its environmental standards were unmatched. Except, we were to learn, they weren’t. As was widely reported, Volkswagen’s cars weren’t green at all. Instead, they were emitting pollutants well above the statutory limits and lying about it.
The path to overcoming greenwashing is to be authentic. Don’t claim to care about something you don’t care about. As we have read here, companies have a history of manipulating the public by claiming that they are leaders in an issue that people care about.
Don’t forget to look at your business core values; these are values that you really care about and that you build your company around them. If you can’t be authentic about social initiatives, choose not to engage in them. Volkswagen is learning the price of greenwashing the hard way – in millions of dollars lost and a ruined reputation.
In a move to be eco-friendlier, do you remember when McDonald’s announced it would cut plastic straws from its locations in the UK and Ireland, replacing them with a paper alternative? The fast food chain uses 1.8 million straws a day in the UK, so they touted the initiative as a significant step in helping to reduce single-use plastic. But there was a problem; where the old plastic straws could be recycled, the new paper ones couldn’t be! Customers were told to put them in the general waste.
The lesson here is to do your research, take time to consider whether the CSR initiative is practical and doable. Don’t jump on the bandwagon to look cool or be on trend; it has to be authentic and achievable. You want your CSR to be leave the right legacy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
SANGEETA WALDRON Sangeeta Waldron is a multi-award-winning PR professional. She has been a contributing editor for different news platforms specializing in sustainability and corporate social responsibility, where some of her stories have been published by the United Nations. In 2009, Sangeeta founded her own London based communications agency, Serendipity PR & Media, and guest lectures at Coventry University on journalism, ethics, global society, social media and PR. Sangeeta started out her career writing speeches for a previous UK Prime Minister and Ministers. She has worked at the top level with global brands, which includes – The Economist Group; The Times Education Supplement; Mayor of London; Cass Business School; and charities such as the Gaia Foundation, National Federation of Women’s Institutes and Breast Cancer Campaign. In August 2019, Sangeeta published her first business book, The PR Knowledge Book with Business Expert Press. A regular international speaker, she often moderates a panel discussion for Asian Voice newspaper that supports British Asian women in business.
The world is at a tipping point – climate change, plastic pollution, bush fires, disappearing forests, a global pandemic and explosive conversations about diversity and inclusion. Now, more than ever, it is important for all types of businesses to have authentic Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives that are not a publicity spin. This book demonstrates that CSR is the future of business.
The book, Corporate Social Responsibility is Not Public Relations, contains 15 global inspirational interviews with thought leaders and entrepreneurs, including David Katz, CEO of Plastic Bank; Lois Acton, mentored by Anita Roddick, founder of the Bodyshop, Fred Huguez, who escaped the LA gang culture about the essence of sustainability, and more. These interviews within every chapter, along with the research, show there is international public support for business to do better and that CSR is driving investment. This is the time for all types of business to have CSR as the lifeblood for all their customers and employees.