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Is it Ethical to Profit from Social Justice Issues?

close up of ukulele

Social justice activism is like music.

The question of whether it is ethical to profit from social justice issues seems to be a question of balance. This is what social justice activism and music have in common.

String instruments require the proper tension at all times to be in tune (balance). Pull too tight on a string and it goes sharp; too loose and it goes flat. Musicians must check their instruments or a delightful piece of music can become a train wreck. In the case of social justice activism, if you do nothing, you risk losing to the competition (aka going flat). On the other hand, if you say you care about an issue but have not actually made any positive impact, it’s like going sharp. The results of both are unpleasant at best.

With this analogy in mind, let’s look at the question again: Is it ethical to profit from social justice issues? The short answer is: it depends. Talking the social justice talk without walking the walk is unethical even if you’re not profiting from it. That’s just lying.  

However, may I also submit that ALL companies can and should benefit from authentic engagement with social justice issues? If your organization finds a way to make an impact, and customers respond favorably, then we should celebrate that. What’s even better about that scenario is that you have the resources to do even more good down the line. In that case, it is ethical to profit from social justice issues.

When corporate activism goes flat (aka doing nothing)

Companies certainly have something to lose if they make no attempt at social activism. We discussed this on a previous blog “Using your Brand to Advocate for Social Justice Issues.” I’ve summarized a few reasons here:

Taking a stand can increase employee satisfaction and retention (photo by Karolina Grabowska).
  • Boost profits. Harvard Business Review notes that companies that have “effective Corporate Social Responsibility” programs are more profitable than those that do not.
  • Boost customer loyalty and employee retention. Existing customers and employees develop a strong affinity for organizations that share their concern for a social ill.
  • Gain customers. A social media analytics company noted that potential customers are 58% more likely to buy from a company that takes a stand for a social justice issue they care about.

In short, corporations could be losing to the competition if they take no action and make no statements. And please don’t lament the days when businesses could just make a profit without being questioned about their social activism. Those were (and still are) the days of unsustainable exploitation of workers, careless destruction of ecosystems, and unfettered white supremacy. I think all can agree that it is unethical to profit to the detriment of others. If that doesn’t move people, then the threat of lost business opportunity should.  

When corporate activism goes sharp (aka doing it wrong)

On the flip side, there are some companies that have attempted social justice, but got it all wrong. Some people are calling it ‘performative activism’ – gaining capital from pretending to care about social justice issues. Even worse, some of those “socially conscious” organizations are still systematically bringing harm. Performative activism is unethical, can actually reduce profits, and hurts the brand.

Here are a few examples of corporate social activism gone wrong:

  • Amazon tweeted a statement expressing solidarity with the Black community but received immediate backlash for a few reasons. Some argued that the facial recognition technology that it sold to police was more likely to falsely match people of color, leading to the arrest of innocent people. What’s worse, there were reports of Amazon’s discrimination against people of color. The gross underrepresentation of Black people in leadership positions further undermined the authenticity of Amazon’s tweet.
  • Old Navy planned to release an ad with Black “influencers” sporting Juneteenth merch. Some of the “influencers” were insulted when they were asked to buy the merchandise (rather than the standard practice of being gifted the items), and some were to be offered much less than their worth. This was especially poignant because Old Navy was specifically trying to profit from a holiday that highlights the historical lack of equity in the United States. Following backlash, they cancelled the ad and pulled the merch.   
  • Food & Wine tried to celebrate “Black resilience” while picturing grilled watermelon in their ad. Unfortunately, using a common stereotype was more insulting than encouraging to the Black community.
  • CBS planned to launch a show called “The Activist”, making a sort of reality game show out of activism. Activists were to compete for funds, and social media and/or the celebrity hosts (who were not activists) would decide who would win. Social media comments pointed out that it seemed the main benefit would go to CBS (and the celebrity hosts) and not to the causes. They raised questions including: whether brief soundbites can truly communicate the nuances of many of our global challenges, whether activism could appropriately become a performance or competition, and how they would determine the “best” activist? CBS decided to scrap the show and just donate money to the causes championed (good call).   

Not only are they harming their brand, but these superficial do-gooders may also be negatively impacting the very issue they pretend to support. Research has shown that consumers who hear about a fraudulent attempt at social justice are less likely to take action later. 

When corporate activism is in tune

On a positive note, Nike seems to have found a good balance with social justice activism. They have positioned themselves as promoters of equity for people of color for years, spending millions to sponsor mentorship and other community programs. Building on that, Nike employed an actual activist to host its 30th anniversary of the “Just Do It” campaign – Colin Kaepernick. Their support of Kaepernick cost them some business; outraged people called for Nike products to be burned because of their association with the blacklisted athlete. Nike’s stance was risky, but it paid off in that their overall sales increased as others rallied to support their position. 

The Bottom Line

Where companies ignore social justice altogether, they miss opportunities. It’s even more tone deaf to tout social justice activism but have made little effort to change. Profiting from appearances is both unethical and short lived. But a round of applause goes to companies that can increase profits while meaningfully working to make the world a better place.

Published by Marissa Yi

Marissa (she/her) is a homeschooling mother of two. She is energized by helping people come up with creative solutions to help launch new projects, events, or businesses. When she is not writing or building websites, she loves singing, crafting, and baking pies!

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