When corporations co-opt social justice, who pays?

Can corporations be purveyors of social justice? They’re certainly trying hard.

Reddit CEO Ellen Pao announced recently that she had found a simple solution to “eliminate the gender pay gap”: do away with new-hire pay negotiations altogether. Wow. Forget the fact that her rationale implicitly undercuts the idea of gender equality (Pao reasoned that because women are “naturally less aggressive” than men, they are less likely to ask for higher starting salaries). The real head-scratcher is her attempt to sell economic injustice in the name of social justice. 

Even more troubling is the fact that she’s not alone: Across the country, corporations regularly use social justice issues as a platform to justify their market decisions.

Nestle Chair and former CEO, Peter Brabeck, recently told The Guardian that he thinks “the way we think about water needs to change.” Brabeck says he has become a “convert to the cause of water stewardship” and believes that water scarcity is “the biggest threat facing humanity.” That, apparently, is why he wants to continue making deals with state governments to get private access to public water. Nevermind that he gets to sell the water at 99% markup; it’s all in the name of “conscientiousness.”

And then there’s the unfortunate Starbucks’s #RaceTogether hashtag, an idea that probably sounded great in the boardroom but was destined to be a massive flop in practice. The exercise proved to be an exercise in social awareness that demonstrated just how socially unaware massive corporations tend to be.

All of these ham-handed attempts to capitalize on our desire to purchase our justice leads one to wonder: What’s next? McDonald’s rainbow-colored, Gay Marriage Fries? Taco Bell issuing Immigration Reform Chalupas?

This is the height of offensiveness: appealing to populist frustration over real issues — things that people actually care about and want to change — in order to sell bad food and bottled water. After all, these campaigns are nothing more than earned media for the corporations running them. They are meant to engender good will from the public, and therefore, to sell lattes and hamburgers — not spark discourse or inspire activism.

Of course, big businesses only engage in these sorts of gimmicks because they work, which makes them as much the American consumer’s fault as anyone else’s. As Slavoj Zizek points out, we are given chances to meld our values with our materials through what he terms “cultural capitalism:”

Note how Starbucks is one of Zizek’s biggest foils: “You are buying more than a cup of coffee; you’re buying a coffee ethics.” We choose to buy our coffee at Starbucks because we share Starbucks’s values (and they’re freaking everywhere); we’re a better person for having chosen Starbucks over Dunkin Donuts.

Meanwhile, as corporations trot out these media ploys to convince average Americans that they “care,” most of them are engaging in untold damage to the economic and ecological infrastructures in America and the world. Starbucks, the king of predatory expansionist practices, has a legacy of undercutting competitors and crushing small business. Nestle is implicated in some of the worst environmental scandals in the world. And Ellen Pao’s cynical “wage gap” ploy is merely a means of justifying the reduction of worker rights.

Public Relations, via PR / Flickr

Public Relations, via PR / Flickr

What I find most disturbing, however, is that the consumer is now beset not only by the frenetic advertising bombardments that structure our every waking hour, but also by weird PSAs about treating each other better and being kind. It has all of the weird dystopian corporate paternalism that one might expect to find in a Philip K. Dick novel, or a Paul Verhoeven film. This paternalism is creepy not only because it represents a shift in the relationship between big business and the public, but because it shows a significant merging of big business, government and public discourse. The dissolving boundaries between corporate, political and media organizations in the U.S. have given ample opportunity for corporations to assume postures and activities that government used to be solely responsible for. They do the job of “reaching out” to the masses through public relations campaigns in attempts to participate and, in some senses, shape the national political and cultural discourse. Of course, beneath these campaigns there lies nothing but self-interest and marketing strategies.

All this is to say that when we outsource our social justice to the private sector, we tacitly endorse all of the massive injustices that those same companies are engaging in to serve the same motive that sparked their interest in making value based appeals: profit.


Lucas Ropek is a journalist based in Massachusetts. He worked for the Working Families Party in NYC on issues of income inequality and worker rights. His interests include U.S. foreign policy, pop-culture, and freedom fries.

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