Corporations And Social Justice

Natalie Bachman

May 25, 2020: an innocent black man is murdered by the police force, rocking the nation, and sparking the Black Lives Matter Movement. As people lined the streets to fight against the injustice that still outlines our discriminatory society, corporations didn’t hesitate to make a statement. Suddenly, every shop in Downtown Los Gatos had a “Black Lives Matter” sign plastered in their window, and department stores began to air commercials about social justice. 

These corporations have a powerful voice, one that can be used to spread awareness and positive influence. However, with concealed motives such as profit, it is important to understand exactly how these companies are supporting their causes (or not).

Corporate Social Responsibility, CSR, isn’t a new concept; companies have been building their brands to satisfy customers by holding themselves accountable for various social issues, ranging from equity measures to environmentalism. As explored by the Harvard Business Review, CSR can be a powerful tool for corporations to adhere to the concerns of their consumer base, building a stronger brand. This can be exercised in many ways, such as featuring ethnically diverse actors in their commercials and donating money to local soup kitchens. These causes are almost universally accepted and tend to attract customers of all backgrounds and beliefs.

A prominent example of environmental CSR is Starbucks’ decision to eliminate use of plastic straws in all of their stores. While Kevin Johnson, CEO of Starbucks, may have stated that their initiative was in efforts to achieve the “global aspiration of sustainable coffee,” it would be ignorant to assume that Starbucks wasn’t driven by a desire to appease their consumer base. Environmentalists had been aware of the detrimental impact plastic straws have on the environment for a long time. However, a viral video of a turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its nose surfaced the internet, the #SaveTheTurtles movement spurred, and Starbucks decided it was time to take “radical” actions. Eliminating plastic straws earlier simply wouldn’t have appealed to customer desires. In fact, plastic straws only make up 0.03% of waste, so Starbucks’ initiative was essentially useless environmentally (although it helped them build a brand and please their consumer base).

In other situations, CSR can be blatantly deceiving. Chick-fil-a has publicly stated that they “have a positive impact in our communities by strengthening the neighborhoods and cities we serve.” However, a closer look at the nonprofits they’ve supported, ranging from Salvation Army to Fellowship of Christian Athletes, reveals hidden anti-LGBTQIA motives. This statement is quite deceiving if their concealed definition of “having a positive impact” is fiscally supporting discrimination.

In recent years, companies have begun to expand beyond the people-pleasing realm of CSR. Corporate Social Justice (CSJ), or a more radical form of CSR with an emphasis on equity measures, marks the beginning of a new era for companies. Customers have begun to realize the profit-centered motives of CSR, and are demanding that companies support the appropriate issues, regardless of how it may shit their customer base. For example, publicly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement may cause a company to lose “business from some groups (such as white supremacists or police departments)” (Harvard Business Review). In other words, CSR is designed to please a consumer base, while CSJ has greater moral, often liberal motives (although it would be ignorant to assume these businesses don’t consider profit).

Unlike CSR, CSJ comes with its risks: especially in conservative locations, social justice movements, ranging from Black Lives Matter to LGBTQIA rights are not always viewed in a positive light. Companies practicing CSJ are aware that they may lose a consumer base from these demographics. While it would be ignorant to say that they are also striving to gain business from demographics supporting social justice, CSJ is still more radical than simply supporting a universally accepted cause.

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