Why companies shouldn’t air their dirty social issue washing in public


“It’s great that the corporations are adopting this but let’s remember where the real credit goes,” Rhodes says. “The heroes are the citizens who make change from the ground up.”

Corporate support for climate change, the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have been embraced, but some companies have been called out for hypocrisy.

Nike advertising featuring Colin Kaepernick.Credit:AP

RMIT University marketing lecturer Dr Amanda Spry says Nike’s slick “Dreams Crazy” advertising campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was contrasted with a lack of black people on the company board. Proctor and Gamble’s razor brand Gillette tackled toxic masculinity, but its campaign was described as virtue signalling because the company charged higher prices for women’s shavers than it did for men’s.

Rhodes points out that women who have accused men in significant positions of power of sexual abuse and violence are the ones who have courageously faced ferocious scrutiny and put their careers at risk. Likewise, the African American protestors have battled for decades, risking their lives on the streets, to campaign for their civil rights. Qantas may have supported same-sex marriage, but its executives didn’t have to face the risk of physical violence in a street march. “Corporations might amplify [a social issue] and cash in, but we have to remember that real political change comes from citizens,” Rhodes says.

Flare tower of Woodside’s Pluto LNG plant in WA with an Indigenous rock engraving of an echidna in the foreground.

Spry defines woke washing as inauthentic brand activism – when a company takes a stand on a social/political issue such as gender equality, racism or climate change, but fails to back it up with their actions and values.

“This is the new frontier of corporate social responsibility,” she says. “Brand activism is more controversial and polarising.

“It comes down to perceptions of authenticity. Are you walking the talk, are you practising what you preach?”

Woodside Energy presents itself as sensitive to Indigenous culture, but has faced criticism over its treatment of sites containing Aboriginal rock art. “That sits in stark contrast to them offering their employees the choice of whether to work on Australia day,” Spry says.

A Woodside spokeswoman says the company works closely with Aboriginal elders and Indigenous communities, showing respect for their culture and values. The company’s approach to the environment, she says, is based on science and complies with environmental laws and regulations.

“Peer-reviewed research has not identified any impacts on Murujuga rock art from industrial emissions associated with liquefied natural gas production,” the spokeswoman said.

Telstra says it engages on topics that matter to people and which are aligned to its purpose and values. “When we do say something, we also take action,” a company spokesman says. “Reconciliation is one example”.

PwC Australia’s head of people and culture Catherine Walsh also says her firm’s policy is in the spirit of reconciliation with First Nations peoples. “Better understanding of each other and our complex national identity and history is essential to creating the inclusive culture we aspire to at our firm,” she says.

Australian Retailers Association chief industry affairs officer Fleur Brown says Australian consumers expect companies to act in a more socially and environmentally responsible way. They were increasingly calling out and boycotting businesses that don’t walk the walk.

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Spry lists outdoor clothing company Patagonia, recycled toilet paper producer Who Gives a Crap and the HoMie, not-for-profit street clothing enterprise which supports young people who are homeless, as examples of organisations that have backed up their claims with action. Dutch chocolate maker Tony’s Chocolonely, which campaigns against slave labour in the industry on its packaging, is another.

Clothing brands including boohoo have campaigned on gender equality while exploiting female textiles workers, Spry says. The company denies the accusation, saying it ensures that the workplace rights of the people who make its clothes are protected. “We talk to our customers about important issues such as gender equality and will continue to do so in future,” a company spokeswoman says.

Claire Braund, executive director of Women on Boards, says companies need to get their own house in order before they jump on the bandwagon. The Australian Shareholders’ Association judges the merits of a company’s stand on a social or political issue on a case-by-case basis. “What is appropriate for one company may not be for another,” chief executive officer Rachel Waterhouse says.

“Companies that take positions that are popular without them being closely aligned with [their] culture, values, and practices will inevitably be found out,” she says. ”Reputational damage would be worse than not taking a position in the first place.“

With trust declining in the ability of governments to solve economic and social problems, Waterhouse says pressure has grown on companies to take a more active part in addressing social issues including climate change, sexism, racism and modern slavery.

In his recently published book Woke Capitalism: How Corporate Morality Is Sabotaging Morality, Rhodes argues that woke washing is a mere symptom of a deeper problem that could potentially weaken democracy. He says a decrease in state intervention and the growing power of corporations since the 1980s has contributed to their influence on significant political issues. But while companies are interested in climate change, sexism, racism and identity politics, they have shown little or no interest in the housing crisis or massive wealth inequality in an age of billionaires.

“They are not going around saying they are trying to increase the minimum wage,” Rhodes says.

“We have CEOs whose payslips look more like ransom notes. If corporations ever had two main social responsibilities, one is to pay tax and to provide decent and meaningful employment to people. That isn’t happening.

“The kind of politics that gets highlighted are things that either support or don’t interfere with corporate interests. That’s not democracy, it’s closer to feudalism.”

The notion of being politically awake – woke – harks back to the 1960s when civil rights activist Martin Luther King spoke about being aware of social and political change. This notion of being woke went viral during the Black Lives Matter movement and has been misappropriated to disparage progressive political causes. Rhodes warns people need to be woke to woke washing.

As he describes it, the substantial debate is not between the left and the right. Democracy is where the real struggle lies. He fears for the very system that allows us to have political differences. “That is what is potentially at stake here,” he says. “That’s what worries me more than where a CEO makes fairly inane gestures about Australia Day.“

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