Corporate neutrality has become impossible to achieve. Now more than ever, consumption choice has become entwined with ethics and any good or bad move by a business can affect its profit. But has this involvement in social issues gone too far? What could have once been a sign of responsible business has now too often become a superficial layering of social activism with very little lasting impact.
A lot of this activism, whatever the motivation, has has a lot of investment and planning. L’Oréal’s NGO partnership with the C40 Women4Climate initiative could be called a publicity stunt, but it is ultimately making a difference in climate protection and gender equality. Now and again, however, the boundary is crossed, revealing a dark side to corporate activism. Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad is a prime example of this. Not only did it appropriate the Black Lives Matter campaign, but it trivialises the many years of police brutality in America.
In this case the backlash was instant and Pepsi removed the ad. However, its production shows a lack of moral awareness and an indication of the true intentions of corporation’s involvement in activism.
But it does not end here. Businesses are now inclined to making statements of support for social rights campaigns. The most recent example of this being McDonalds flipping their yellow M to a W for International Women’s Day. It certainly appears sympathetic to the cause but dig a little deeper and you see beyond the sweeping symbolism to the harsh reality. McDonalds, despite being a billion-dollar industry, still fails to pay their workers living wage. Is this empathetic activism? Smells a lot more like profiteering the lucrative market of social inequalities.
Granted, the boundaries are blurred: how can we tell where morals end and marketisation begins? The Pepsi ad is clearly over the mark but corporate altruism has seeped into every consumer choice. The concept of fair trade started from a desire for ethical consumption, but it is steadily becoming another empty brand which leaves our wallets empty and our morals satisfied.
Milton Friedman stated that “the social responsibility of business is to increase profits”. If this is a model, surely no socially responsible act by a corporation is done without considering the monetary gains involved. Does it matter if feminist slogans are splashed across t-shirts or companies claim sustainability?
Using activism in this way is beneficial for the campaign as well as the company at hand but we must be careful that these forces for good don’t become hijacked for other, less altruistic ends. In this age of popular activism, it is hard to escape and decipher the motivations of all actors, although there is hope in the greater visibility of social media which enforces responsible corporate behaviour.
Social activism is not about profit-making: it is about the bettering of people’s lives. Corporations must restrain themselves from these selfish, money-making ventures or they risk inflicting harmful impacts on initiatives that actually resist the injustices of society and the economy.
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