Is H&M guilty of moral licensing?

I’m trying to start a new habit: brisk afternoon walks with a podcast. On my inaugural walk, I listened to the first episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History: The Lady Vanishes”. As you might imagine, he masterfully weaves historical tales together with a thematic common thread. Today he’s exploring tokenism with women from the 19th century world of fine art and 21st century politics.

He shares a social phenomenon I had not heard of before: moral licensing. Basically, it’s the idea that when we do a virtuous act, we often use that act as permission to go back to whatever behavior we were trying to improve. You know this trap. You tell yourself you’re going to start eating healthier. You manage to do that for five days and on the sixth day you rationalize eating ten cookies. Back to the very behavior you are trying to change.

In another example from the podcast, you hear of Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister. The nation celebrated her progressive victory; only for government leaders to follow it with some widely broadcast misogyny unfit to print. The good deed invariably reproduces a bad deed. One step forward, two steps back.

Gladwell’s story begs the query around what happens when moral licensing happens at a cultural level. What happens when the ‘good deed’ is merely optics for the spectacle of media and the ‘bad deed’ is a cultural default?

It made me wonder about moral licensing in business and marketing.

You see, a few weeks ago I posted H&M’s “She’s A Lady” TV spot and lauded the brand for their body type diversity. I gushed about using Plus model Ashley Graham. I praised them for giving real momentum to the Plus size inclusion conversation that Tim Gunn and Christian Siriano had dared to start during New York Fashion Week.

Now, I’ve just learned that H&M has pulled distribution of Plus items to a small number of select stores. If you’re Plus, and you want the current collection, you’ll likely have to go online and see if it’s there.

Did H&M produce the TV spot (which plays like a bit of a third wave feminist anthem) merely to get cultural credit for the good deed?

Did H&M do so knowing a subsequent business move would summarily fall back to marginalizing Plus women? Do they even know that is what they are doing by contributing to the utterly defeating exercise that is finding fashionable clothing larger than size 16? Do they not understand that women of all sizes want to shop together? Do they not realize that Plus women have money to spend too? About $20 billion, last time I checked.

I feel duped.

Sure, I read their statement about it being a business decision to allocate retail footprint to an upcoming Home Goods launch. Nothing like business pragmatism to explain away why they present the brand as one of complete inclusion only to cop out on truly walking the talk. It rings in my ears as “we would do better, if only it weren’t so hard”. Mr. Gladwell’s got me thinking it’s the shortsightedness of moral licensing at play here. I believe it’s insulting to female consumers because it underestimates us and is a pantomime to the body positive movement.

I hope they’re enjoying all the feels from the TV spot now before shoppers decide the brand’s size celebration is one-sided. Time for my walk.

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