Group Gordon’s Anna Kizito explores crisis management in the fallout of “ESG-washing” allegations and gives helpful tips to avoid making claims that you cannot support later.
Last month, a lawsuit against fast fashion giant H&M alleged that the company has been misleadingly marketing its clothing line, “H&M Conscious.”
While overpromising is not completely unheard of in the fashion industry, H&M found itself in its latest PR blunder because of the subject of this half-truth: sustainability.
H&M is a major example of the phenomenon of virtue signaling, which is the action or practice of publicly expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.
Implicit in this definition is the idea that these sentiments and opinions rely on words alone.
In H&M’s case, hailing itself as an eco-friendly brand distanced itself from other fast fashion companies that have recently been under fire for their lack of environmental stewardship. H&M Conscious became a way for H&M to, according to the lawsuit, maintain its unsustainable practices while promoting itself as a socially aware brand.
The onset of the pandemic – a reckoning for several social and environmental movements – particularly saw many organizations follow this exact pattern: brands hashtagged, celebrities made lofty pledges, and multinational corporations celebrated Earth Day.
Two years later, however, many of these movements are still going but many organizations have little to show for their big claims. Audiences are much more attuned to the concept of “greenwashing,” “DEI-washing,” and “ESG-washing”, and are growing more exasperated with, and apathetic towards, brands joining conversations around sustainability and inequality.
Virtue signaling is dangerous because it damages reputations, weakens trust between brands and audiences, and jeopardizes the reliability of messaging around actual plans to improve.
Instead of making hasty claims to be on the right side of *Twitter* history, here are some crisis management tips to avoid finding your organization in hot water for making promises that it simply cannot or will not keep.
Don’t rush to make claims about your organization’s work that it cannot back up. For example, if you’re eager to engage in public discourse around sustainability, take your time to develop a strategy that addresses your organization’s environmental impact first. Most importantly, be honest about the status of this strategy – celebrating your organization’s progress without overselling how much you’ve accomplished.
Understand the issue and your role in it. This is not only key to having an internal strategy that makes sense, but it’s critical to making sure that your commentary and thought leadership is appropriate and respectful. Over the last few years, we’ve seen organizations be quick to comment on issues that don’t make sense for them to weigh in on. It’s important to publicly stand with communities, but even more important to engage with them behind the scenes. (see Tip #1).
It’s important to acknowledge the harm you may have been complicit in. Covering up previous mistakes with “woke” messaging can only stand to hurt your organization in the long run. Taking accountability for previous statements builds trust with your audience and gives you a chance to move forward with grace – not to mention without the stain of a “notes app apology” on your record.
Communicating around sensitive topics always involves a learning curve. Rather than attempting to present your organization as a fully formed, all-knowing entity, be honest about where your organization actually stands. H&M could have championed a narrative about its efforts to transition its clothing lines to a more eco-friendly brand, but instead, it was forced to strategize its communications efforts around crisis management.
We can’t hold ourselves to a standard that doesn’t reflect reality – and communications alone won’t fix that.