H&M's appointment of Maisie Williams reveals the nuances of greenwashing in PR

If brands are touting their sustainability creds, they can't simultaneously ignore ethics, argues Sam Narr
If brands are touting their sustainability creds, they can't simultaneously ignore ethics, argues Sam Narr

What's red and white, famous across the world, and guarantees disappointment? Nope, not Liverpool FC since donning Nike ticks on their chests: I'm talking about H&M's feeble attempts at sustainability.

This week, H&M unveiled Game of Thrones star Maisie Williams as its global sustainability ambassador.

It follows the launch of the fashion retailer's Conscious Collection (labelled as greenwashing by many, due to a lack of transparency) and a team-up with football fashionista Hector Bellerin. Sustainability, it's clear, has been woven into the marketing mix.

A global fast-fashion brand promoting sustainability: "Pretty dandy," I hear you say, while you gyrate in £20 chinos.

However, while on the surface this seems optimistic, in reality, it's pretty insidious stuff. The latest ambassadorial appointment has been widely criticised due to the ongoing ill-treatment of staff at H&M factories, with reports of sexual abuse of female workers and inability to meet the Living Wage targets they set themselves.

Simultaneously, Williams (and others like her) pockets vast sums of money from a corporate partnership. The system appears broken.

The rise of conscious consumerism has increased the demand for brands to act with integrity when it comes to environmentalism and ethics.

Global corporates have reacted to match the speed of knowledge shared by incrementally shifting toward sustainability in their supply chain processes (materials, logistics etc), resulting in often hollow marketing campaigns as an accoutrement.

The overlooked element – because it requires a grand systemic overhaul that would dent shareholder profits – is the transformation of global operations in hard-to-regulate-and-audit countries, which moves slower and is easier to gloss over in a PDF.

It's similar to online privacy laws, and relying on archaic policy processes to police them; the pace of change from consumers has been so swift, and efforts to adapt with authenticity have been poor.

Without taking a pop at Williams, one wonders what influencers' roles look like within this shitshow.

Most people reading this will be working with well-known brands that attract global talent who demand high budgets – heck, try negotiating an IG Story with an influencer these days with 10k+ followers.

So, how can talent be more responsible in how they partner brands, if at all?

A much stricter vetting process needs to be mandatory from the talent side; irreversible reputational damage can occur without it, and leads to them becoming part of the problem.

Large corporates can't overlook ethics while fronting their sustainability credentials; they have to go hand-in-hand. Marketing this while having no consideration for CSR initiatives is a form of hypocrisy and results in greenwashing.

Does this signal a future of existential conflict for do-good execs and seniors alike at agency level?

Growing up, we all dreamed of working with Coke, McDonald's and Facebook, but now that we've all wised up a bit, many are giving their genius, sweat and tears to the corporations that make us wince.

Sam Narr is founder and chief executive of Kibbo Kift Agency

This story first appeared on PRWeek UK.

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