World over, corporate organisations are struggling to earn their CSR compliance stripes in the most daunting of times.
As we all know, what makes a socially responsible organisation is not merely that it makes a profit or pays its taxes; even though that’s what Milton Friedman and his supporters would have us believe. There is more of course. The organisation has to be intimately in tune with the needs and aspirations of its publics even when those yearnings are unvoiced. The corporate’s tentacles is sensitive enough to intuit the need of the day and to do its bit towards ameliorating it.
No one says anyone organisation has what it takes to fix all of the world’s problems. But from where thou standest, how about shining your light, as in the motto of the old West African Pilot: Show the light and the people will find the way. It’s all so easy to seem like responsible when you get the press put the spotlight on the measliest of interventions your company undertakes on behalf of others.
And no matter how stalwart a company is, there is the soft underbelly that critics can take potshots at without missing. Take the example of Nike. Its message ‘Just Do It’ resonates because most people would rather not ‘do it’. They’d rather think about running than do the run; they’d rather imagine reading than picking up the book; they’d rather imagine themselves doing the assignment than actually doing it, they’d rather imagine tilling the soil than actually being on the farm. So, early enough, and consistent with its brand essence, Nike realised that ads that move people are far more resonant than ones that talk merely about product quality in an age of parity products or commoditized brands where real differentiation aside the visual branding is close to nonexistent.
Nike has since then picked up speed on its social interventions becoming one of the very first to align with the Black Lives Matter movement. Its support for Colin Kaepernick who was featured on the company’s norm altering advert caused not a little stir in the corporate world but especially in the US where dire predictions were made by conservatives of the company’s imminent diminishment.
It didn’t happen. No, it didn’t. Rather, Nike has grown from strength to strength with Phil Knight (Nike founder) in an interview with Fast Company in 2018 quoted as saying “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it. And as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something, which is ultimately I think why the Kaepernick ad worked.”
So there you have it, Nike decided to take a stand on racial equality, something so monumentally crucial to the fabric of the American way of life. It was always going to be an uphill battle with entrenched racists who have perfected the use of the law and order system (police and the courts) to keep people of colour perpetually under. Justice is routinely denied black people even as they are decimated by policemen clearly licensed to do so by the system.
But Nike’s seeming soft underbelly is its labour practices as it concerns its factories in China and Vietnam. It’s been alleged that under aged workers are the mainstay of the labour pool there and that they produce under sweltering sweatshop conditions. These accusations have dogged Nike for a long time but the company has also made efforts to distance itself from that ignominious reputation. While admitting that its labour engagement was a blind spot at the time of its stratospheric rise in the 90s, it states it has since remedied the situation by being more hands on rather than leaving all the decision making about factory employment to those running those factories in faraway places. In a statement last year, Nike said “We specifically and directly forbid the use of child labor in facilities contracted to make Nike products, and we regularly monitor contract factories to remain vigilant. Our contract factories are required to comply with Nike’s Code of Conduct and Code Leadership Standards, which are audited by independent monitors.”
So does Nike sometimes drop the ball on this matter? Being a profit driven human operation, we can safely say that there would be infractions now and then. That said, however, Nike has shown itself a decisive, social impactguided, hands-on-the-market-pulse player. It is something of a radical undertaking for a white owned business to take a stand on the volatile issue of systemic racism, something to which many in the establishment are wedded and sworn to. If that stand, which some claim is cynical, helps balloon its bottom-line, so be it. Nike never claimed to be a non profit. Hopefully, the company will integrate its work place even better, having admitted in 2017 that only 10% of its 353 vice presidents were black. That actually, ought to be the sweet spot for black folks, when they are an integral part of wealth building, entrenched as staff and leaders in the corporate sector. The question however still remains, how does that help a man or woman who despite their station in life can be pinned down on the streets or even in their homes and life snuffed out of them like George Floyd’s was, like Breonna Taylor’s, Aura Rosser’s, Stephon Clark’s, Botham Jean’s, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling’s, Michelle Cusseaux’s, Freddie Gray’s, Eric Garner’s, and so many more. Point is, systemic racism, is the root that needs be taken out. Only thereafter can lives and livelihoods be built and expected to flourish.
It is noteworthy that Nike, despite its other perceived failings, has stayed stout on the matter of Black people, who it must be said constitute a big chunk of its market. Nike sneakers is a big part of the hip hop culture with Air Jordan and other brands named after iconic Black sports folks becoming highly prized collectibles in the Hip Hop as well as wider Black community.
Nike’s lead, nice to see, has attracted the following of other corporates.
No doubt, the climate is right for change and the organisations know that they need to be on the right side of history. They can see the portents, the trends, they need to ride the wave. It’s a big wave, by the way, one that’s been building up for a long time. The swell is a dream and to miss that wave might be suicidal. But that’s how change happens. It’s the culmination of the interplay of multiple variables, many of which don’t seem to share any connection whatsoever.
So what do we have? At the last count, Black Lives Matter and other allied Black Lives enhancement set-ups has attracted support from several organisations, many of which have also incorporated “#Blacklivesmatter” into their social media accounts –
to matching employee donations to the Black Lives Matter organization and other charities. million commitment to support George Floyd’s children…
This is all good, and we still hope to see more organisations joining the fray. But the corporate organisations can only do so much. They do not hold the real levers of power that’s the prerogative of government; the government, unfortunately, of white supremacist Donald Trump. Like Susan Aronson, Senior Fellow at The National Policy Association in Washington DC was quoted as saying at the Americas Conference on Social Corporate Responsibility in 2002, “GE brings good things to life, but it cannot end poverty. Archer Daniels Midland may claim it’s the supermarket to the world, but it cannot ensure that no child goes hungry. Dupont may provide better living conditions through chemicals, but it can’t ensure safe drinking water worldwide…that is the role of governments” (Heinecke, 2002:38)
Donald Trump must step up to the plate and swing right. His antediluvian politics might have been right for the 60s, but it’s all wrong now. Listen he must, and follow, he must, the money. Corporates aren’t just doing good, they can smell the money. The man who claimed to have written The Art of the Deal should know that.
(Next week, we shall show the different statements of intent from the different corporates supporting BLM)