When telling the truth isn’t the whole truth


URI business professor studies lies by fashion brands
about corporate social responsibility

Tony LaRoche 

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

“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’

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

“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.”

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