Hypocrisy in the Age of Corporate Social Justice

Aisling Carlson
Chief Business Officer
August 26, 2021
“Justice consists not in being neutral between right and wrong, but in finding out the right and upholding it, wherever found, against the wrong.” — Theodore Roosevelt

Remember June 2, 2020? Our Instagram feeds became an endless scroll of black squares, many posted from our favorite brand accounts, signifying solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. There were impassioned captions about company-wide efforts to study the underpinnings of systemic racism, strings of hashtags, emojis galore. You’d think that brands across the U.S. had been waiting for years to proclaim their allyship with BLM, and only had that one summer Tuesday to express it. But in the game of PR and social performance, there’s an incentive for brands to “stay woke” — one survey found that 60% of Americans “want the companies they buy products from to have a position about issues such as racial discrimination and social justice.”

Femvertising, greenwashing, tokenization — we’re living in an age of corporate social justice, and one has to stop and wonder how to parse through the noise of lip service and uncover who’s actually doing what, and if that “what” is even enough.

bird's eye shot of social justice in business text on road saying end racism now
Courtesy of Pexels.

Social Justice in the Business Sphere

Social justice movements have long imagined and paved the way toward a world where all members of society can access equal societal benefits and secure basic human rights, regardless of their background or procedural justice. 

Whether it’s affordable health care for low-income households and families, women’s rights, ecology and environmental justice, or racial justice, the forefront of social justice movements have typically been the youth who plead with politicians and drive public policy with sit-ins, marches, protests, and walk-outs. The socially conscious brand, on the other hand, is a relatively recent phenomenon.

When Did Brands Start Becoming Socially Conscious, Anyway?

Businesses as far back as the 1800s demonstrated concern for worker well-being, health, and productivity as the Industrial Revolution propelled the factory system into a mainstay and wealthy magnates like Carnegie and Rockefeller became some of America’s earliest philanthropists.

But it wasn’t until the second half of the 20th century when the term ”Corporate Social Responsibility” (CSR) was coined by economist Howard Bowen to refer to the fact that since companies exist because of public consent, companies should, you know, give a li’l bit back to society. Makes sense, right?

By the early 2000s, we saw mega-corporations like Pfizer, Coca-Cola, Wells Fargo, and Walt Disney make CSR a part of their business processes. Then in 2010, Instagram was founded, and…

Vanity, Equity, and Rampant Virtue Signaling

In our social-media-driven age, when corporations try to behave more and more like relatable people with good intentions (in other words, your best friend), CSR has evolved into CSJ, or Corporate Social Justice, which is basically stating, “Let’s take these feel-good initiatives and actually try to commit to positive, sustainable change.” It’s an ethos that’s tricky to practice and easy to perform, as we saw in full swing in 2020 and experience every year for months like Pride, when corporations use queer liberation as a way to sell rainbow-affected merchandise and put up flags, only to take them down on June 30th.

It’s territory rife with double standards and ironies, and we’re not above the fact that we, as marketing agency and startup studio, are discussing this topic on our blog, which, whether we want it to be or not, is in perpetual “advertising” mode. Or the fact that wonderful pieces such as this blog discussing Corporate Social Justice by The New Quo’s Christina Blacken live on the American Express site, of all places.

Of course, under our capitalist infrastructure, there’s nothing wrong with this — that is, corporations taking a stand. But where it becomes dicey is when the front-facing image and the behind-the-scenes reality don’t match, or when the material aims of the messaging is totally exploitative, as Nosheen Iqbal brilliantly describes here:

“Behold! The advertising industry, once bent on selling us sex is now selling us its disgust with sexism. Experts in the field might point to Virginia Slims, the godmother of allegedly feminist brands, selling female empowerment as far back as 1968. These were the ads that showed women sashaying, strutting and smoking with the tagline: ‘You’ve come a long way, baby,’ making lung cancer an equal-opportunity disease.” — Nosheen Iqbal, The Guardian

Or the fact that dozens of brands, including AT&T, General Motors, and Anheuser-Busch, celebrate Pride and also donate to anti-LGBTQ+ politicians. (Yikes.) Or the fact that companies can promise to “do better” and think about the ways that systemic racism has affected their teams, but still 4.1% of management positions in the U.S. in 2020 were held by Black women, 2.2% by Asian women, and 4.5% by Hispanic women.

So...What Do We Do?

What can corporations do? Are there examples of brands that are authentic about their CSJ and do their marketing right? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Create measurable steps and goals to fix any biases within your organization. Your social media declarations mean nothing if your company embodies the same issues you want to address. Pipslay polled consumers about how brands should take a stand against racism, and the top answer (from 31% of participants) was that they should address racial biases internally first.
  • Follow up your statements with concrete actions. In June 2021, Aesop celebrated Pride month in a different way. They asked their employees what their favorite queer authors and books were, bought hundreds of copies from independent bookstores, cleared their products from the shelves of three locations in New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles, and established a queer library. Anyone could walk in and take a book (or two) without having to make a purchase. You can see the list of bookstores they supported as well as authors and book titles here.
  • Think about stakeholder value as well as shareholder value. Maximizing short-term profits and boosting stock price to appease shareholders is a longstanding business strategy, but often comes at the expense of stakeholders: your employees, suppliers, consumers, and the community at large. In fact, the investing landscape has seen a shift with the inclusion of environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria in evaluating investments, and long-term there’s a positive financial return on keeping your stakeholders top of mind.
  • Become a Certified B Corporation, if possible. Certified B Corporations are social enterprises verified by B Lab, a nonprofit organization that evaluates companies based on the value they create for non-shareholding stakeholders — think employees, the local community, and the environment. If a company meets the highest standards of striking a balance between profit and purpose — if they’re redefining what success in business looks like and building a more inclusive and sustainable economy — they can become a B Corp. Some current examples of B Corps include: Patagonia, Ben & Jerry’s, Allbirds, Prose, Uncommon Goods, and Warby Parker.

Thoughts on grandstanding and social justice in the business world? Suggestions about how companies can take a stand — and make a real impact, too? We’d love to hear from you — drop us a line down below.

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