The recent killing of George Floyd and many other black Americans by police sparked a national reaction. While people protested in the streets, it seems that nearly every company and institution released a statement supporting social justice. At first, many of these statements may have seemed well-intentioned and sympathetic, but more often than not, they are simply a way for companies to cover their bases and not a genuine show of solidarity. Even though making a clear statement about a company or institution’s stance on a social justice issue seems meaningful, these companies must be held accountable and take concrete actions to reflect their commitment to justice.
Breaking Down the Verbiage
Although companies and institutions of every size and type have released statements, the ones to focus on are the larger corporations, as they are more influential. Some such companies released impactful and well-received messages. Netflix, for example, kept it succinct with a social media post saying that “to be silent is to be complicit. Black lives matter.” There was no tiptoeing around the issue or trying to use vague language. Even more clear and frank was a tweet by Ben & Jerry’s: “these racist and brutal attacks against our black brothers and sisters must end.” Yes, these two examples are of a streaming service and an ice-cream company, but these words and stances have a lot of power. When people turn on their TVs or check social media and see messages like these, they are forced to confront reality. These messages reached millions of people, and the companies were clear and decisive on where they stand.
On the other hand, though, the actions these companies take to actively combat social and racial injustice are what really matter. Acknowledging that social issues exist is an important first step but is relatively passive and not a big risk. Although it is unlikely that taking a stance will increase revenue, it is just as unlikely that it will decrease it, making this an appealing option for most companies. A more involved and meaningful action that companies can take is to advocate; this means “to actively support a cause or policy”. This can be monetarily supporting through donations but also through things like advertisements.
How to Interpret
To demonstrate how little acknowledging social justice issues actually means, I will give examples of how companies released statements but continued harmful practices. It is best to first start on the basic level of representation within the organization. It would be hypocritical for a company to release a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement and yet not evaluate its own hiring culture and bias in leadership. Unfortunately, this applies to many companies.
Amazon is a good example of a company that utterly failed in its response to these social justice issues. Although the company did release a statement in solidarity with the black community, its history and current practices contradict their support of the movement. Critics reference the past examples of Amazon selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement and for previously firing employees who protested the company’s response to the pandemic. Amazon has not announced any plans for changes within the company to combat racism or injustice.
Similarly, Facebook has received a lot of criticism for its response. Even though it pledged monetary support, it has not taken action on Trump’s heavily criticized posts, which “intimidate[d] protestors in Minneapolis with the threat of military actions.” This shows that money is not everything, and a company’s actions and self-evaluation matter as well. Companies must be held accountable for not only inaction but also wrong action and unfulfilled promises.
The Right Way
It is also difficult though, to say that a company did everything right. Every company and institution is fallible, and even if it seems they are doing the right things, they may be continuing harmful practices below the surface. There are companies though, that seem to have done at least some of the right steps. YouTube, for example, pledged $1 million to the Center for Policing Equity. Other companies like Peloton and Glossier also made considerable donations to supporting the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and black–owned businesses, respectively. Their money is meaningful and important, and they have “put their money where their mouth is”. Sometimes those who have the money and platform make more of an impact by just donating money than they would making a statement. Not only do these donations directly support the movement, but they also spread awareness and could encourage many other people to donate.
Similarly, Nike has made important changes as a company to demonstrate how seriously they are taking social justice issues. Although still not perfect, Nike took the risky move of standing in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick in 2018, when few did. Nike has continued to prioritize taking a public stance and internal evaluation of their practices. They show that it is not enough for a company to be involved once, but to continue a pattern of support and advocacy.
The Challenges with Action
It is also important to recognize the difficulty companies face in having to promptly react to such important issues. There is a lot of pressure to make a quick response, especially once other companies start. Especially where there is a specific and poignant event, companies often scramble to take the right steps.
Although some understanding is required on the part of consumers, the company also should be prepared for this. The company’s previous actions and current guidelines, practices, and mission statement should speak for themselves as continued support for social justice movements. Any statement or action they make to a specific event should simply be on top of the continuous work that they always do. If a company is truly committed to the cause, their advocacy will be constant, and not just responsive.
What Consumers Can Do
Companies may have more money and a wider platform than individuals, but consumers still have a lot of power in this situation. The most obvious is that it is consumers buying products from companies, which gives them such power. By being conscious of which companies we support monetarily, we have a say in who holds the power. By supporting businesses that support social justice initiatives, consumers are indirectly also supporting the movement. By supporting businesses that further perpetuate and continue racist and unjust practices, consumers also indirectly support that. Consumers, just like companies, should also “put their money where their mouth is.” Furthermore, individuals also have the power to “check” and call out companies that have not responded or failed to respond appropriately to the social justice movement. Whether it is a social media post or a review on the company’s website, consumers’ opinions and words can make an impact, especially collectively. Even though this fact-checking and taking a stance requires more effort on the part of the consumer, the overall benefit of supporting the right/better companies is very rewarding.