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Corporates Are Making Activism Great Again

Airbnb launched its 2017 "We Accept" campaign in reaction to the Trump administration's travel ban | Image credit: Airbnb

Corporations are people, my friend — and not just for tax purposes anymore. In the age of ubiquitous social media pressure, businesses are rebranding as social justice warriors — and that’s a shrewd marketing move on their part, new research reveals.

No matter your political preference, red and blue-staters alike can agree that the current administration has brought massive change to Washington, D.C. Along with provocative moves on immigration and civil rights, the White House has rolled back or delayed more than 1,500 planned regulations. All the while, Congress remains frozen in historic partisan gridlock.

At the same time, companies are more accessible than ever before. Businesses can speak directly to consumers through social media, elevating their brands — and accountability to the public — beyond the bounds of traditional advertising. And ever-more vocal customers, employees and investors can speak right back.

These conditions create a perfect storm: A leadership void is widening where government mandates once stood, while Americans are able to demand more action and accountability with the tap of a finger. Businesses are uniquely suited to step up as thought leaders and change drivers to fill this void — and they’re increasingly taking advantage.

From sustainability to the Internet to immigration, companies are jumping into the civic arena, adding megaphones to their platform to engage the public debate. Airlines banded together to oppose the administration’s policy of separating families at the border, asking the government not to use their planes to transport separated children. After the White House pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord, hundreds of businesses, investment companies and other organizations joined policymakers and academics to declare “we are still in,” taking up the baton on climate change action.

And it’s more than just talk: Corporations are following through with action. Starbucks is the latest corporation to announce it’s phasing out plastic straws by 2020. As the EPA moves to unwind regulations from the Clean Air Act to the Clean Water Act, Google and Apple recently announced their businesses are powered by 100 percent renewable energy, the realization of goals years in the making. These commitments are catching: 85 percent of the nation’s largest public companies reported on climate change, diversity and other sustainability issues in 2017.

The hitch in this corporate social awakening, of course, is money. Businesses, at the end of the day, have to turn a profit to survive, and CEOs must deliver a return to shareholders to keep their jobs. The federal government, in contrast, works for the people, not profit. So, any transfer of authority from the public sector to the private is going to come with strings attached, by design.

The good news is, social activism doesn't have to come at the expense of corporations' bottom line. In fact, new research from the Shelton Group reveals that it doesn’t: 86 percent of consumers said they believe companies should take a stand for environmental and social issues. And 64 percent of those who said it’s “extremely important” for a company to take a stand on an issue said they were “very likely” to purchase a product based on that commitment.

In stepping up to fill this leadership void, corporations are advertising that they take seriously their place in society and in the marketplace.

After the February massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 students and teachers dead, there was an unprecedented groundswell of demand for stricter gun control regulations. While the government remained silent, a host of companies took a stand, publicly distancing themselves from the NRA. Dick’s Sporting Goods, for example, reacted by removing assault rifles from its stores, destroying the guns and accessories rather than returning the items to their manufacturers, and forbidding the sale of all ammunition and firearms to anyone under the age of 21. The day of its announcement, Dick’s stock ticked up, while gun manufacturers took a hit. Appealing to the majority of the country in favor of stricter gun laws, Dick’s made an investment in social change and in its brand, and sales soared.

These individual commitments and actions form one giant wave of civic engagement from corporate America, taking on the mantle of social leadership from the retreating hand of government. While the tenure of Trump is temporary, the line between business and social reform will only continue to blur. As more Americans demand action, businesses are uniquely suited to drive change through the marketplace — and endear themselves to consumers in the process. 


Suzanne Shelton is CEO of Shelton Group, the nation’s leading marketing communications firm entirely focused in the sustainability and energy efficiency sectors. The company polls Americans on an ongoing basis to understand their drivers and obstacles to adopting more sustainable… [Read more about Suzanne Shelton]


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