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Protecting your brand: navigating ‘Cancel Culture’ in Retail

In a recent article published by Retail Week, the challenges faced by retailers in the era of cancel culture were highlighted. 

The article shed light on various instances where businesses have faced backlash and boycotts due to controversies, ranging from marketing campaigns to issues related to working conditions. While these mini case studies serve as cautionary tales, they also emphasise the importance of proactively addressing key issues to avoid negative publicity.

One such example mentioned by Retail Week was the case of Bud Light, which experienced a significant decline in sales following a backlash from American conservatives due to a marketing campaign featuring a transgender TikTok personality. Zara also faced calls for a boycott after an advertising campaign featuring controversial images sparked outrage. 

Marketing campaigns have the potential to backfire on a retailer’s brand, but it’s not the only threat.

Diversity & inclusion

Consumers are increasingly conscious of the need for diversity & inclusion in all aspects of business operations. When a brand fails to demonstrate a commitment to it, they risk alienating customers, damaging their reputation, and facing potential boycotts.

Consumers expect businesses to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve and to create inclusive environments for both their employees and customers. Failure to do so can be seen as discriminatory or exclusionary, leading to public backlash and a loss of trust.

I recently wrote about ASOS deciding to abandon its diversity targets in its annual executive bonus scheme. This decision, which was based on preference to focus on achieving profit targets, was met with negative publicity for the brand.

By contrast, businesses that prioritise diversity & inclusion can benefit from increased customer loyalty, improved employee morale, and a positive brand image. A diverse and inclusive workforce brings different perspectives, experiences, and ideas, fostering innovation and driving business success.


The practice of making misleading or unsubstantiated claims about a product's environmental benefits can also have a detrimental effect on a business's reputation. As consumers become increasingly environmentally conscious, they expect businesses to be transparent and genuine in their sustainability efforts. When a brand is found to be engaging in greenwashing, it can erode consumer trust and can lead to a backlash. Customers may feel deceived and betrayed, resulting in a loss of loyalty and potential boycotts. 

A relatively recent example includes the Competition and Markets Authority’s investigation into ASOS, Boohoo and Asda’s ‘green’ claims, but there are plenty of others. In fact, my colleague, Jill Crawford, recently warned that the Advertising Standards Authority is set to enhance its capabilities in the area of spotting greenwashing by deploying AI technology. According to their recent announcement they expect to be monitoring 10 million online adverts this year.

In today's interconnected world, news of greenwashing practices can spread rapidly through social media and other online platforms, amplifying the negative impact on a brand's reputation.

Supply chains

Instances where supply chain practices come under scrutiny, such as child labour, environmental damage, or unethical sourcing, can also lead to reputational damage and potential boycotts.

Consumers today are increasingly concerned about the ethical and sustainable practices of the brands they support. They expect businesses to have transparent and responsible supply chains that align with their values, and if there’s any evidence of exploitative or harmful practices within the supply chain, it can result in public backlash. On the other hand, retailers which prioritise ethical sourcing, fair labour practices, and environmental sustainability can gain a competitive advantage.

By proactively addressing all these issues, businesses can go a long way towards protecting their brand reputation, maintaining customer trust and thriving in an increasingly polarised and opinion-driven marketplace.

How we can help

At Irwin Mitchell, we understand the importance of addressing diversity & inclusion issues and can provide businesses with the necessary support and guidance. Our legal experts can help businesses develop comprehensive policies and strategies that foster an inclusive and equal workplace environment. By working closely with our clients, we aim to help them avoid the negative impact of getting diversity and inclusion wrong and instead create an inclusive culture that enhances their reputation and drives success.

Irwin Mitchell has a range of D&I training modules available for employers and employees. These cover a range of topics and can be delivered at a time and place to suit you and your workforce. Further information is available here.

We also recognise the importance of addressing greenwashing concerns and ensuring transparency in sustainability efforts. Our legal experts can assist businesses in developing robust environmental policies, ensuring compliance with regulations, and implementing sustainable practices throughout their operations. By avoiding greenwashing and genuinely embracing sustainability, businesses can protect their brand reputation, maintain customer trust, and contribute to a more sustainable future.

For more information about our retail, leisure and hospitality sector services, please visit our website here or contact Charlotte Rees-John