Should companies be commended or condemned for taking on social responsibility?
story sean yu design richard giang
Before we begin, I want to make it clear that my argument is framed from the perspective of someone who fully supports the messages Kaepernick and Nike are trying to send. However, I will try to minimize the politics and social justice talk.
“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” With these two sentences, Nike and Colin Kaepernick poured gasoline on the fires raging in both the sports world and the political one. The decision to place Kaepernick at
the forefront of Nike’s 30th anniversary advertising campaign at the beginning of September has been praised, criticized, analyzed, and discussed by anyone and everyone with an opinion. Athletes, celebrities and politicians alike have weighed in, as well as the millions of voices on social media platforms.
Political viewpoints aside, critics of the campaign argue that the company is too late in responding to the issue given
that Kaepernick first started kneeling for the national anthem in 2016, are only taking a side because it is profitable, or have no moral high ground because of its shady labor practices.
These are sentiments I’ve heard nearly every time a company takes a socially progressive step. Starbucks can’t be praised for its diversity training because its tactics are built around driving away local businesses. Google has no right to promote sustainable energy when its user privacy is questionable at best. United Airlines’ anti-gun stance is meaningless because of its shaky customer service history. For every “responsible” action a company is praised for, there is no shortage of people quick to point out the company’s shortcomings in other areas.
The presence of these criticisms raises an interesting question in the broader world of corporate social responsibility: Are companies allowed to be forgiven for their other missteps or questionable practices if they are
making a positive di erence elsewhere? In other words, does the good outweigh the bad?
To put it simply, yes.
Expecting a company to hold some lofty, morally perfect standard is nothing short of unreasonable. While there
are certainly companies that are held
in higher regard than others for their ethical ventures and business practices, the fact of the matter is corporations
are imperfect organizations created
by imperfect individuals living in an imperfect world.
While we should certainly expect these globally successful, multinational firms to make responsible decisions for the good of society, the reality is often not that easy. Nowadays, it seems like every leading company is or has been embroiled in ethical controversies, whether it’s because of worker treatment (Walmart, Amazon, Apple), environmental issues (Volkswagen, ExxonMobil), or any other sort of poor decision.
I’m not saying that companies shouldn’t be held accountable for mistakes, nor am I trying to downplay the severity of any of these situations. These companies deserve swift judgement and accountability for their actions. However, I think it’s also worth noting that we don’t live in a black and white world, but rather one comprised of infinite shades of gray
This “grayness” colors a lot of the actions people take today. I’m sure I speak for every human being on the planet when I say that we have all done good things for the wrong or self- serving reasons. Whether it’s to improve one’s reputation, win influence over others, or leverage side benefits, not every moral action is without those who seek to gain from performing it.
Companies who undertake or support social initiatives are no di erent. As bleak as it might sound, a company’s chief objective is to make money. Money is the reason why businesses are started, why they’re able to continue operations
today, and why they will continue to exist for as long as possible. Money is almost always the strongest motivator for a company.
While criticizing a company for supporting a social initiative only when it’s profitable is a fair complaint, it often unfairly diminishes the fact that the organization is at least doing something about that social issue. Unless it’s blatant hypocrisy, good work is still being accomplished regardless. We often judge others on their actions first, with motivations coming second.
So, if a company’s positive practices are motivated primarily by money, then it is up to us, the consumer,
to reward that behavior by making it profitable for them to continue their actions—provided those actions are supported by the consumer. The act of not supporting a company that is taking these actions would remove much of the incentive behind its behavior (money) and only discourage it from attempting similar initiatives in the future. Those
who support the same stance as Nike regarding the Kaepernick situation should not be unduly criticizing
the company for jumping on the “bandwagon,” but celebrating the fact that one of the largest corporations in the world is intensifying the spotlight on a national issue.
Ultimately, true change cannot happen without decisive action. While there is a myriad of layers behind every issue and the corporate decisions a ecting those issues, I do think that companies striving for solutions should be given the benefit of the doubt—or at least get cut a little slack.
Despite how cynical or condescending I may have sounded over the course of this story, I do believe in people. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to be better and do better. We may stumble and fall along the way, but it’s important to pick ourselves
back up, forgive—but not forget—and keep moving in the only direction that matters: Forward.