The term “woke” gets something of a mixed reception. To most of us, it’s an entirely positive description of behavior that is ethically and socially responsible. Yet, it has also become weaponized to some extent by less positive sectors of the community, often by the right-wing to belittle and delegitimize efforts to make meaningful change. But this isn’t the only way in which social activism has been misused.
The term “wokewashing” isn’t yet in the popular lexicon. However, the behavior it describes is prevalent — especially in businesses. This is an act that stems from corporate leadership noting consumers are increasingly likely to make purchasing decisions based on a company’s social and ethical affiliations. The result is some businesses purporting to act responsibly, often showing support for causes, while in the background their actions are anything but woke.
Let’s take a closer look at the issue and why it’s so important to steer clear of such activities.
What Does Wokewashing Look Like?
You already likely hold the high ethical standards for your business that should help you to avoid wokewashing. However, it’s important to gain a good understanding of what it looks like in a practical sense. This can both help you to steer clear of any inadvertent transgressions, better inform your staff, and even influence the behavior of others in your industry.
Some of the most common forms of wokewashing occur on companies’ social media channels. Managers will make posts that are ostensibly in solidarity with social causes, yet will do nothing to address these issues in their business. One example of this has been in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Following the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, there was a flood of social media posts by businesses expressing their condemnation of racial injustice and inequality, and their commitment to improvements. Yet many of these businesses did not have robust equality standards. Some high profile examples, like Nike and Adidas, drew particular ire for professing solidarity, while having leadership that is entirely white.
Often wokewashing is featured in the way companies market their products. In order to attract consumers, businesses will use vague terminology that suggests ethical practices. However, many of the terms they use don’t explicitly state adherence to regulated standards. This means they’re able to appear ethical to consumers without having any legal obligation to demonstrate genuine actions.
Greenwashing is a subset of wokewashing using this tactic. The goal in this instance is to directly mislead consumers into buying products that seem to be environmentally friendly, while the business puts little investment into meaningful sustainability. Packaging and marketing will feature suggestive “green” imagery, and vocabulary will often proclaim it is “organic,” or “eco-friendly,” while the ingredients and processes used will actively harm the environment.
What Is the Impact?
The imperative to avoid wokewashing is not just because it is ethically unsound — although this is a key aspect. Rather, you need to understand how this deceptive approach to operations has negative consequences on lives and cultures.
This includes impacting the following areas:
- Cause Progression
Perhaps the main issue with wokewashing is the detrimental effect it has on the issues companies claim to support. On the most basic level, it stalls forward momentum as the support and changes within a company that could make a genuine impact are discarded in favor of superficial statements.
This also limits the cumulative social impact genuine changes would otherwise have. When businesses and organizations make ethical changes on an industry-wide level, this raises the standards for everyone. There are also emotional, financial, and even wellbeing impacts upon communities. After all, wokewashing in racial, equality, and sustainability fields allows the problems to perpetuate, masking the passive and active damage companies are doing by neglecting to address their failures. It makes a clear statement that the interests of the community are less important than the goals of a capitalist society.
- Consumer Confidence
From a strictly economic perspective, wokewashing does distinct harm to businesses. To the companies consciously or unconsciously making superficial statements, it can do reputational damage.
When Pepsi released an ad featuring Kendall Jenner that aped racial injustice protests to promote its brand among millennials, the backlash was so strong that the company’s YouGov purchase-perception score plummeted. But this not only affects the businesses that directly engage in these practices. It can also cause consumers to be more cautious about others in the industry who are genuinely making efforts to change.
How Can You Avoid It?
Having addressed how negative the impact of wokewashing is, it’s important to understand how to avoid it. This is largely a case of maintaining your focus and authenticity. In most cases, when small businesses are caught up in such activities, this is a misguided attempt to remain relevant in a changing world.
If you’re not fully committed to a cause, don’t pretend to engage — focus on other practical activities that keep you relevant. Brick-and-mortar companies can invest in creating a digital presence or focus on the current trends in their industry. Even hosting in-store events can be a useful tactic. But don’t piggyback on a cause for credibility — you risk harming both your business and the cause.
When you find a cause or issue you are keen to engage with, do so meaningfully. Make sure that the outward signs of your support are backed by meaningful activities behind the scenes. Your commitment to diversity should be reflected not just in entry-level staff but in leadership.
Your sustainability must be met by a continual assessment of your processes to minimize negative environmental impact. Perhaps most importantly, be open when you’re not meeting high standards and talk about how you intend to improve. You’ll find the public considers your integrity and commitment to change more credible than a superficial and inaccurate social media post.
Wokewashing is a new term, but the activity is seeing some intense activity as of late. Your business needs to avoid superficial actions that undermine the efficacy of a cause and the credibility of organizations in exchange for brief marketing clout. Be authentic in all your dealings, and demonstrate sustainable, meaningful commitment to improvement.