Author: Nicholas Chang (Left Leaning)
Three years ago, the streets were packed with protestors holding up signs calling for peace and equality. From one of the crowds, an emboldened Kendall Jenner emerged and calmly confronted an imposing wall of police in riot gear. Armed with a can of Pepsi, she offered the drink to an officer and, upon his overdramatic sip, the swarm of demonstrators erupted in a celebratory frenzy.
Of course, this was not a real protest for a social cause, but rather, a business conglomerate’s attempt at using protests as an advertisement for their products. Corporate concern for social justice has reached a new peak with the recent George Floyd protests, as a multitude of corporations responded to the killing with “anti-racist” statements and donations towards charitable organizations. Despite the private sector’s response to various social issues, they continue to perpetuate strife within their own industries, capitalize through commodifying social justice, and lie to their consumers to align themselves closely with popular movements. The climate crisis, persistent sexism and misogyny, and police brutality have sparked outrage among people and corporations alike, but it is important to look beyond the statements and encourage companies to fix the problems that exist within their own sectors which they have the most control over.
While companies have shown their willingness to support social movements, they hesitate to enact lasting change towards their own industries’ malpractices and would rather use their resources towards maintaining profits. For example, in the same summer where Uber pledged to donate 10 million dollars to black-owned businesses and criminal justice reform organizations to affirm its status as an “anti-racist” company, Uber also contributed 51 million dollars in lobbying for Proposition 22, which reclassified gig workers from employees to contractors. Proposition 22 was written and funded by gig companies to avoid paying unemployment assistance, health care, and other benefits that would typically come with employment. This reclassification was a year-long battle to overrule a previous law by creating a ballot proposition that would keep gig companies from complying with Californian labor laws. The inequities in the dollar amounts pledged to these two different causes already presents a problem with Uber’s supposed concern for the black community, as the issue of racism would generally be prioritized over employee categorization.
If a large company like Uber really was concerned for the well-being of the black community, it should at least demonstrate that sentiment with an equal amount of resources being split between their lobbying activities and to directly benefit African Americans.
The unequal amounts of resources split between social causes and corporate lobbying doesn’t stop with Uber. While corporations were making headlines this summer with an estimated $450 million dollars being donated towards social causes, they have consistently spent billions of dollars in the past decade in their lobbying efforts to enact favorable laws. These donations towards social justice do not deserve the spotlight when compared to corporate lobbying, as there is an obvious emphasis on the latter. A real newsworthy event would be if corporations pledged to begin lobbying for legislation that activists have been pushing for.
Adding fuel to the fire, big companies often maintain business practices that conflict with the social justice messaging they espouse. This is best exemplified through a practice called “greenwashing,” where corporations would purposefully lie about their products as environmentally conscious or misinform their shareholders on their environmental impacts to improve their public perception. This form of deception began as consumers became more concerned with the environment and the impacts of the products they buy. While a recent study published in the Journal of Business and Technical Communication showed that discovering greenwashing negatively impacts public trust, it also found that companies have been very effective in deceiving consumers as most people could not differentiate from greenwashed products and environmental-conscious products. While the Federal Trade Commission does have the power to investigate and punish companies through Section 5 of the FTC Act which prohibits deceptive practices, the agency has rarely used this power. The relaxed regulations coupled with the opportunity to tap into a multi-billion dollar market while appearing to be socially responsible would undoubtedly encourage this practice and continues to demonstrate the shallow nature of corporate social concern.
Corporations have also begun using social justice messaging and figures as a central theme behind their products. With studies such as a recent one by the Case Foundation showing that millennials place a large emphasis on social issues and activism, businesses have begun making products with social causes as the centerpiece of its allure. When Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality, Nike eventually signed the football player and incorporated his message into their marketing. Since the airing of a commercial featuring Kaepernick, Nike has seen a $6 billion increase in overall value and released Kaepernick-branded “True to 7” shoes that were sold out on the first day it was available. Products have now become a badge to show support for social change and Nike’s success demonstrates the eagerness to buy into the idea of enacting change through consumerism.
As millennials have recently become the largest age group within the United States, corporations are recognizing that they would have to change their products to reflect the tastes of the most progressive and socially-conscious generation in our society. However, buying into social issues will not create any solutions to these existing problems, but would only allow corporations to profit off of the movement while hypocritically maintaining unethical practices. While Nike is outspoken in its support for Kaepernick and its opposition to police brutality, the company continues to manufacture its shoes with Uighur prison labor in Qingdao, China. Racism and police brutality in the United States may take years to address, but a corporation’s choice on whether or not to use forced prison labor can be solved much quicker.
At the end of the day, corporations have no obligation to spur societal change but they are obligated to benefit their shareholders. By embedding social justice within their marketing strategies and products, companies have enriched themselves by selling social causes to consumers. To businesses, social issues present another way of connecting with consumers and catering to their desire to enact change. By piggybacking onto popular movements, these companies can present the illusion of significant changes perpetrated by actual grassroots organizations while appearing more socially responsible.
Behind the scenes, these same companies will continue to vigorously lobby for beneficial rules, maintain questionable business practices, and lie to align themselves with the most attention-grabbing social movement. Despite having the most control over their own business practices, their own products, and their own industries, large companies prefer utilizing the occasional donation or statement to present the mirage of a socially responsible business. However, consumers have demonstrated that they do seek out authenticity in ethical initiatives and can pivot if they witness abuses within these businesses.
With all the deception within corporate efforts to aid social movements, it’s important to hone in on the abuses within those companies and encourage change within those industries before moving on to larger issues. While general issues may require the attention of all organizations to be solved, corporations have the power to immediately create real impact that could significantly benefit their consumers, employees, and their peer companies.