The modern brand’s guide to social washing – Qatar edition

Football skull illustration commenting on the social washing around Qatar world cup

Hey brand. We know you want to come off well in the eyes of the world and attract customers, top notch clients and talent. These days, that often means doing the right thing by both people and the environment. Apparently this is a key driver for the newest kids on the block, Gen Z, as they join the workforce. But – this sounds like a lot of work. You may even have to change a few things within the business, which can be uncomfortable. Luckily, there is another option which is much easier to achieve – social washing. 

You may be familiar with its cousin greenwashing and they both follow the theme of talking the talk without having to walk the walk. So instead of taking genuine action, all you have to do is talk about it and maybe make some temporary changes to your logo. 

If you want to dive deeper, former comedian Bo Burnham has some useful advice on how to ace a social washing campaign.

Big sporting events often provide excellent opportunities for both social- and greenwashing. Especially when they come with abominable human rights violations, oppression of LGBTQ+ people and wild carbon neutrality claims.

Examples of social washing from Qatar World Cup

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar has been particularly rich in class examples of perfectly executed social washing.

Danish football team kits for Qatar world cup

The Danish national team is donning kit that represents criticism of Qatar’s human rights record and honouring migrant workers who died during construction work for the cup. Designed and manufactured by sportswear company Hummel, the second kit is an all black design where their usual chevron pattern has also been toned down to make a statement. This decision may have come from a place of good intentions, trying to take a stance and still comply with FIFA restrictions around messaging. But this is a textbook example of performative activism. It comes at no personal cost and gives people a feel good excuse to buy jerseys that they don’t need.

If they decided social- and greenwashing was not for them, they could choose instead to stop changing kits every year, like Brentford FC, who decided to reuse the same kit for another season (it’s a first step).

Another convenient thing about social-, green- and even pride-washing is that it can quickly be tidied away if it becomes inconvenient. Like if you’re sponsoring an event in a country that doesn’t like rainbows.

Graphic from Culture Shift with 2022 world cup sponsors pride logos versus Qatar logos.

culture shift

And then we had Brewdog. Oh Brewdog. They declared themselves an anti-sponsor of the world cup, ran a big ol’ campaign, all while showing the games in their pubs and being investigated over their own worker conditions. Again – no cost, lots of publicity. 

This came in stark contrast to the Iranian national team who remained silent during their national anthem in protest at great personal risk.

Brewdog 2022 world cup anti sponsor campaign. Out of home poster on side of building

saatchi&saatchi UK

There may be some cons to social washing after all.

Better examples of good

Football has huge power to join up society and ‘one planet’ action – if used in the right way. And sports people have massive platforms and enormous opportunity to influence change. In fact, according to Dr Madeleine Orr, founder of The Sport Ecology Group, 62% of the population would follow the advice of a sport person compared to 16% of an actor and 1% of a scientist. 

People like Marcus Rashford MBE, as well as Southampton’s Katie Rood and Wycombe Wanderers’ David Wheeler have shown the social and environmental change that footballers can influence. And it’s not only individuals, organisations are popping up all over the world, for both fans and athletes to join forces and make positive difference. Organisations like Football For Future and Fossil Free Football are opening conversations about how clubs operate, fan travel, polluting sponsors and applying pressure for change.

Green by name and green by nature Forest Green Rovers FC has been named the world’s greenest football club by the United Nations and FIFA. With chemical-free pitches, vegan catering and electric coaches, they are showing the footballing world how it can be done. You can watch friend of Leap and Forest Green Rover ambassador Helen Taylor talk about the club’s amazing work from Goodfest 2022 here.

One step forward and two steps back

Closer to home, Leap sponsored player and sustainability designer Chevonne has previously written about her project to tackle football’s effect on the climate and the changing climate’s effect on football in her Sport4Climate and Stop The Rise campaign pieces. As a lover of football, Chevonne shared her thoughts about the world cup:

“The 2022-23 season of football has a massive sense of one step forward and two steps back – the summer of 2022 was possibly one of the most historic summers for women’s football and for sports in general with the Lionesses becoming European Champions! 

After years of hard work and graft we were beginning to see gender inequality within football being addressed. The tournament also had a strong LGBTQ+ community support, which is polar opposite to the Qatar World Cup. With the host nation making their views on the LGBTQ+ community, human rights and climate issues very clear and with FIFA turning a blind eye – what should have been a celebration of the sport now seems hugely tainted and injust. 

Brands that jumped on the bandwagon and contributed to the social and greenwashing of the tournament have a lot to answer for but equally I feel those who didn’t speak up and use their platform when they had the opportunity to stand against it all do too.”

– Chevonne Johanning

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Jokes aside, it can be a fine line between what is and what isn’t ‘washing’. We absolutely don’t want to discourage people or brands from doing something rather than waiting until it’s all perfect. But the focus has to be on the doing. Let the actions speak for themselves, we’ve heard they’re louder than words anyway.