Is your company “woke washing?”

by Jun 2, 2021

Shelton Stat of the Week

60% of Americans say a company’s involvement in social issues or its nonprofit partnerships has a moderate to very strong impact on their purchase intent. — Eco Pulse®, December 2020

It’s sustainability reporting season, and one thing is clear: COVID-19 and George Floyd brought humanity into the forefront of reporting. Just read the CEO letters in the reports of many of today’s major corporations. From Eastman (page 5) to Chevron (page 1), and Microsoft (page 3), CEOs across industries are acknowledging the importance of racial equity and social justice.

The best example of humanity – and authenticity – taking center stage, though, is the CEO letter in Walmart’s 2020 ESG report. It’s an excellent example of a compelling story backed up by action. (If you’re involved in ESG reporting, please read it on page 12; I wish I could say my team wrote it – it’s that good.)

Perhaps why this resonates with me so much is because I see the “bad rap” on Walmart in our data. In our Good Company report we put a bit of a spotlight on Walmart because of the unfair position they’re in. They’re #2 on both the list of companies Americans name (unaided) as “good companies,” but also #2 on the list of “bad companies.” As our report calls out:

The top reasons for citing Walmart as good are price, variety, and customer service. Top reasons for citing Walmart as bad are that they treat employees poorly, followed distantly by bad service and cheap/poor quality.

Clearly, Walmart CEO Doug McMillan is aware of this dichotomy, and he addresses it head on in his letter by saying:

There are a lot of stereotypes out there about Walmart. It’s no secret to us that we have critics who assume we’re doing business at the expense of people and the planet – that we’re all talk. The fact is, though, we’ve been working hard to use our scale to create positive change for a long time now. Issues like sustainability and opportunity don’t take a backseat. For us, our founder’s mission still guides the way. Sam set out to save people money so that they could live better lives. We learned that we simply can’t do that if our people and the planet aren’t nurtured for the long run. Short-termism has no place in our plan.

I love that he calls out the bad rap directly. And he should – Walmart has made significant strides in its treatment of employees, and it’s unfair that it’s still cited as a reason to characterize Walmart as a bad actor. McMillan goes on in his letter to call out specifically the things the company is doing for employees, and he very eloquently and directly talks about all the challenges facing society and the need for collaboration in solving them. It doesn’t feel like the “corporate speak” so many of these letters are full of; it feels real – and what makes it real is not just the plain, conversational tone, it’s that there are real actions backing up the words.

This gets me to a new term I became acquainted with last week, and the real motivation behind this post: “woke washing.”

Read this article, as it does an excellent job of defining the term, and an excellent job of pointing out why I’m so enamored with McMillan’s article. The companies being accused of woke washing in this article are companies that released bold statements – even ad campaigns – about their commitment to equity and diversity, but then resisted calls for more transparency and reporting around their actual efforts. Now, there’s likely more to the story for each company called out in this piece, but in the court of public opinion it doesn’t really matter. Once you get publicly labeled as all talk and no action, it takes a long time to get over the public stigma, even when you course-correct and do the right things. Just look at Walmart.

The moral of the story is this: do the right things first, then talk about them. And deploy your CEO as a plain talking, heart-felt spokesperson. You’ll earn the world’s respect.

News of the Week

Companies that declared solidarity after George Floyd killing may be ‘woke washing,’ shareholder advocates warn

According to MarketWatch, the shareholder advocacy group As You Sow says 70% of S&P 500 companies last year published statements committing to workplace diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI. While many companies already regularly disclose some information about the demographic makeup of their workforces, investors want to know if diversity initiatives are actually working. Other shareholders are calling on investors to hold the companies accountable for more than just their diversity efforts. For example, Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. will be considering a proposal to appoint a human- and civil-rights expert to its board and a third-party review and report on its whistleblower policies. Read more…

How do you decipher the company with true inclusive values?

This Forbes article notes that many companies have issued bold public statements to promote diversity and inclusion in their workplace since the George Floyd tragedy and AAPI hate crimes. The author asks, “Are these actionable initiatives, genuine corporate culture change, or just woke-washing marketing efforts?” Also, diversity brings many advantages to the company, but diversity alone is not enough. Companies must be inclusive of maximizing the power of a diverse workforce fully. With these points in mind, the article solicits the opinions of experts as it explores the question, “How do you spot a D&I knockoff?” Read more…

Good Company

Americans are putting their wallets where their values are. They buy brands (or those brands’ competitors) based not just on corporate behavior, but on how that behavior is perceived.

So how do you protect your bottom line and safeguard your reputation, all while making the world a better place? Well, good works. That’s the simple truth, and as you’ll learn in this report, Shelton Group has the research to back it up.

You’ll also learn how your brand can apply our insights to share your good stories in ways that captivate the public’s passion – so you can gain a market advantage.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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