Washing is the process of watering something down to the stage where it has reduced value. Washing usually demonstrates some inconsistency or inauthenticity or superficial attempt. Washing can involve outright lying and dishonest claims.
Washing involves using the concept for marketing purposes without it being truly committed to in practice. Washing involves spending more time talking about and promoting the commitment, rather than actually taking action.
Basically, washing is not walking the talk.
Why do companies wash socially responsible terms?
Being ethical is good for business. All the socially responsible things like being green, gender equal, inclusive and contributing to good in the world, are profitable.
Younger generations are more likely to spend with sustainable businesses. Consumers want to buy from ethical companies, with sustainable packaging, eco-friendly products and gender positive messaging.
In terms of social impact, the term washing is used in various ways. It is used for climate, gender and the sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Greenwashing was coined in the 1980s and referred to deliberately misleading claims about being environmentally friendly.
Nowadays, greenwashing (or the green sheen) can involve misleading environmental claims or overstating the impact of a companies environmental commitments. I think sometimes it's not intentional, and is a matter of poor wording or overexcitement about a company's attempts to be green. It's not just green, it's a grey area.
Business News Daily describes greenwashing as: "when a company or organisation spends more time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly than on minimising their environmental impact."
Celebrating a minor eco-friendly part of the company might be sincere, even if the majority of the company pollutes. If you work for a company that destroys the environment and you finally get sign-off for a new green policy, you'd be excited to scream about it from the roof tops. So the ethics of green washing and green marketing are open for discussion.
A famed example of greenwashing is when hotels ask customers to reuse their towels in order to be eco-friendly. This is usually followed by words like 'do your part to help us protect the environment'. On the surface this may seem genuine and in some cases it could very well be. The greenwashing comes when this towel message is framed in the midst of environmentally unsound practices. For example, the hotel provides free water in single use plastic bottles, non bio-degradable shampoos and soaps, and plastic straws with drink orders. The hotel may also partake in large scale environmental degradation such as clearing mangroves to make suitable swimming beaches adjacent to the hotel. In this case, the towel message is really about saving laundering costs and appearing green-friendly.
Most recently, during 2020, we saw a foreign President greenwashing his campaign, making unsubstantiated claims in his speeches about being an environmental hero and pioneer of environmentally friendly policies.
Gender washing includes token efforts towards demonstrating gender equality.
For example, a company may change their branding to ensure more women are featured on their websites. They may have a flashy section of their website illustrating their family-friendly, gender neutral policies. The company might also use well structured, gender neutral language. The company may even sponsor a table at an annual women's day lunch and promote that in their press releases. At the same time, the company may demonstrate a culture that in practice is not supportive of women. Women may be very underrepresented in senior roles. The company may have majority male boards and senior management teams. Women who work at the company may report discrimination, sexual harassment and bias. This would be an example of gender washing.
Other sectors may have a slightly different take on gender washing. In marketing for example, gender washing involves taking a men's product and then "shrink it and pink it" to make it suitable for women, rather than understanding women's unique needs to make the product most suitable (read the source article here). This used to happen with snowboard boots - where women's boots were just men's boots in smaller sizes with pink or purple decals. The backs of the boots were too high for women's shins. Now snowboard boots are made to the shape of women's feet and calves!
Showing you contribute to the SDGs (the UN's sustainable development goals) is becoming quite sexy. SDG washing is therefore claiming to align with the SDGs without actually making contributions.
SDG washing is easier to avoid than green washing and gender washing. Targets and dosage are helpful for avoiding SDG wash.
The SDGs are supported by 232 indicators that can be measured, tracked and reported against. A company that is truly trying to contribute toward the SDGs can draw direct links between their plans and the indicators underpinning the SDGs. They would be reporting outputs and results against the SDG indicators. A company that is SDG washing their promotions would just link with the overarching SDG goal of choice with no evidence for linking or reporting their work with the indicators.
There's so many references available on the washing topic. Here are just a few easy reads, if you'd like to learn more about gender, green and SDG washing: