KINGSTON, R.I. – July 25, 2023 – Corporate social responsibility has become a growing issue for fashion brands after years when the industry has faced criticism for its lack of action to foster sustainability and curb clothing waste and harmful environmental impacts.
But that pressure to reform has spawned another strategy: The little-known use of paltering by fashion companies to promote marketing claims about their commitment to act socially responsible.
“Paltering is the active use of truthful but misleading statements along with non-disclosures to create confusion and imply a corporate image that consumers want to see,” said Saheli Goswami, an assistant professor in Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design at the University of Rhode Island. “It is this reliance on truth that makes the whole process and the companies engaging in paltering very much immune to legal repercussions. It also makes it very challenging for consumers to recognize it.”
Goswami explored the incidence of paltering among fashion brands and how it impacts consumer brand loyalty in a recent paper, which was co-authored by Geetika Jaiswal, an assistant professor at North Carolina A&T State University. The paper, “Lying by telling the truth: The risks of deception by paltering and hypocrisy in corporate social responsibilities context,” was published in May in the Journal of Global Fashion Marketing.
Goswami worked for several years in the leather and apparel industry in India and brought with her to academia an interest in real-world problems such as sustainability, climate change, social justice, and corporate ethics and social responsibility.
“Over the years, the fashion industry has been notorious in terms of how it has made the world more unsustainable,” she said. “I think corporate social responsibility is probably more relevant to the fashion industry than any other industry.”
While researching the paper, Goswami and Jaiswal found numerous incidents of fashion companies using paltering, or misleading marketing, including a case in which a company used a myriad of generic facts about natural materials to market a clothing line and to fabricate an illusion of corporate social responsibility, while craftily concealing its use of synthetic materials. Countless other companies inundated their marketing campaigns with an abundance of generic and vague information to tout their corporate social responsibility goals while conveniently omitting any mention of the companies’ actual strategies.
Paltering is a somewhat new phenomenon in the marketing of corporate social responsibility strategies by fashion brands and has not been previously studied, Goswami said.
Through its active use of truthful statements to mislead, paltering is unique from past strategies of deceptive marketing practices, such as “greenwashing” (environmentally focused deception), “bluewashing” (social responsibility deception), omission and lying. “We learned that paltering takes all of the strengths of these approaches and takes them a step further,” she said.
The researchers shifted their initial focus on the incidence of paltering as a novel marketing approach after Goswami had a class discussion with her students and saw paltering’s impact on them. The students cited examples of fashion brands that were being responsible with their corporate social responsibility goals—they were the same companies Goswami and Jaiswal found to be using paltering.
“I thought, ‘Wait a second. That’s a disconnect.’ This really got me looking at it from a new perspective,” she said. “It is very challenging for consumers to identify paltering because at the end, it’s a truthful statement, and because its overwhelming use of generic, irrelevant information makes it very confusing. So, it was challenging for us as scholars to make an intuitive prediction of how paltering would impact consumers’ behaviors.”
To study consumer response, the researchers conducted an experiment creating websites for two fictitious fashion brands, using paltered marketing to promote the companies’ corporate social responsibility goals. They also set up subsequent fictitious news websites to disclose the misleading marketing to the consumers. Two groups of randomly recruited clothing consumers—252 consumers in all—each reviewed one pair of company and news websites and participated in a survey.
The results were stark. The deception caused the consumers to actively find ways to dissociate with the brands, Goswami said. They felt the brands were hypocritical in their marketing, causing a cascade of responses that negatively affected their relationship with the company, feelings about the company’s reputation and their intent to buy from the company.
“We were right in expecting their reactions to be negative and expecting it to compromise consumers’ interest in the brand,” she said. “But we didn’t expect it to be this noticeable.”
Goswami and Jaiswal would like their study to be a wake-up call for companies and consumers.
“Businesses need to understand they need to take appropriate actions at every interaction point with consumers. The objective is not just about promoting their brand. They need to reimagine how to best present their accurate corporate social responsibility information,” Goswami said. “But we want this research to also be a learning point for consumers because they have to be more involved. They need to review the information and critically assess the information that’s being presented if they want to support sustainability.”