Events Opinion Student Life Sustainability Week Switzerland

Last on the bandwagon, first on the high horse

By Kyle Lynch

On Tuesday, organizers from Sustainability Week Geneva hosted a panel discussion on brand activism. Representatives from LUSH and Proctor and Gamble (P&G) introduced their campaigns to stand on various social issues. One salient theme discussed was that a brand’s first step towards activism is choosing to “do the right thing”. It was also agreed that standing with human rights in a marketing campaign had to be backed by real action.

There was back and forth about the spectrum of activism: proactive brands have the opportunity to choose issues reflected in their markets, while other brands are forced to react to current events based on the expectations of their consumers, investors, or employees. Moderated by Professor Judith Schrempf-Stirling of the Geneva School of Economics and Management, the discussion’s opening statements touched base with Nike’s racial justice campaign, asking if brands were heroes for taking up social causes while using them to gain media presence.

Guido Palazzo, Professor of Business Ethics at HEC Lausanne, identified different agents that precipitate brand activism. He preached consistency, calling for issues to be approached with the same positionality and reasoning. He named a need to “do the right thing,” and slammed Nestle for their ambiguous position on divesting from Russian markets in response to the invasion of Ukraine. He would lament and openly challenge the rights of companies that were active and resourceful on causes which he deemed unethical. 

Whatever his notion of righteousness is, Professor Palazzo was comfortable with the idea of himself as its arbiter. His example of someone to sanction and restrict was Mike Lindell, owner of an American bedding manufacturer who funds, inter alia, Trump’s political activities as well as a drug addiction recovery network and alternative COVID therapies. It is not uncommon to find Mr. Lindell’s acts reprehensible, but it takes a dangerous self-righteousness complex to suggest that state and financial institutions should restrict businesses from supporting a cause that is not what he calls “the right thing”.

It might be dangerous to grant such powers to state and financial institutions for obvious reasons: most of the issues that dominate the social justice dialogue today were critically unpopular among the general public when the associated movements began. Considering the fact that a capitalist’s bevy of social causes is grounded in the political climate and limited to issues that can be capitalized on, even brands that stand for basic human rights typically wait until a point in social history when such a position is reflected by public opinion. In other words, even companies that “do the right thing” can never be trusted to identify it in the first place. It cannot be accepted that most brands engaged in activism should assume any kind of gatekeeping duties.

Professor Palazzo begs the state to seize control with a perceived absolute self-righteousness. The “right thing” he keeps circling back to is in fact his own worldview. If state and financial institutions ever find Professor Palazzo’s thoughts and beliefs to be objectionable, will he remember authorizing them to determine righteousness? He suggests granting powers against people like Mike Lindell, and fails to see that he invites the political and financial elite to seize or freeze the assets of anyone for any reason they name. Surely, these powers can and will be applied to crush other forms of dissent besides the one in question. Brands like Ben & Jerry’s are already facing harsh financial consequences from policies in the United States that punish companies which boycott Israel.

Natalie Ekblom of LUSH, a cosmetics brand, spoke about the company’s decision in 2021 to withdraw its brand from social media platforms. LUSH is in the business of wellness, and growing research supports that social media stokes feelings of depression, anxiety, and inadequacy. LUSH chose to “stop talking and start listening,” plastering their accounts around the world with a message: “be somewhere else”. The move was unprecedented; LUSH was the first major brand of its kind to make a case against social media, and it took risks to do so.

The discussion of the LUSH initiative was distinct that day. Most brands mentioned in the panel were not ahead of their time on the issues they chose to confront. LUSH operates on the frontiers of the social media wellness cause. For a contemporary brand to deplatform itself is unknown territory. Instead of enjoying the fruits of decades of hard-fought activism, LUSH is building on recent work by psychologists, demonstrating its belief in science, and writing a blueprint for healthfully remaining engaged with their consumers online.

Layal Ammar of P&G talked about campaigns by the company’s haircare brand, Pantene. The marketing campaigns address consumer needs of visually impaired people, and explore the pivotal, self-expressive qualities of hair for non-binary and transgender folks. The advertisements Ms Ammar presented were creative, intimate, and meaningful. In addition to marketing, they established safe spaces around Europe for those in transition and directed resources to NGOs for job creation. They also partnered with NaviLens, a mobile app that uses scanless QR codes. This new technology makes shopping more accessible to visually impaired people, and was integrated into Pantene’s packaging. The solutions and commercial content were inspired, thoughtful, and represented themes related to hair.

In addition to her assertions about needing to “do the right thing,” Ms Ammar characterized opponents to the initiatives as “haters” with beliefs “based in hate,” whose voices should and would be ignored. As discussed during the panel, brand activism results in the departure of some consumer bases, and the arrival of others. Ms Ammar had no misgivings about denouncing those consumers and leaving them behind.

It is not as if Pantene’s initiatives have no place, but how can its representative speak with such disdain for those who fail to stand with them? To my knowledge, Pantene was not only uninvolved on trans issues until they were represented in the social climate of its consumers; the company also designed and marketed its hair care products for the gender binary across decades, while queer activists fought for their existence and paid with their lives. I have no interest in diminishing Pantene’s work, but to dismiss those who are not on board with causes that the brand only recently adopted is inauthentic, inorganic, and will fuel a dangerous kind of polarization.

While it makes good business sense, sadly, speech acts of dismissal and denial only continue to fragment a crumbling Western society. In the last decade, Western peoples have been increasingly exposed to the trans community and associated human and civil rights issues. The technology employed by NaviLens is similarly a recent breakthrough. But unlike social media, the needs of trans folks and visually impaired people have always existed. It is shameful to smear those whose ideas Pantene only recently began to consider outdated. Pantene was packaging without Braille and has created binary products for decades. They had their reasons: it made business sense. But who decides what is right, and since when? Was Pantene hateful or did it serve the bottom line to reflect its consumers’ social values as they evolved?

Researcher Stefan Reiser of LINK Marketing Services AG conducted a survey (n=2000) on the expectation of brand activism in Switzerland. The findings suggest that Switzerland’s Generation Z does not place much more emphasis on activism for their consumer brands than their elders. He also mentioned that a much higher priority is given to activism by American consumers of the same age.

Mr Reiser advised that there were two scenarios in which activism had high potential to drive success: when it is authentic, taken seriously, and adopted as part of the brand, or in high-consensus scenarios, when ambiguity or neutrality are the most detrimental options. But how have high-consensus scenarios become conflated with cases in which a brand or an individual takes a bold stance no matter the consequences? These are very different moves, which I believe should not be spoken about using the same language or expectations.

Despite identifying different agents for corporate change, Professor Palazzo conflated proactive, cutting-edge initiatives that involve risk, with high-consensus scenarios such as large-scale divestment from Russia due to global pressures. But major companies only divested from Israeli markets, for example, when public opinion began to turn. This in spite of the fact that issues of apartheid faced by Palestinians are not new. 

When the student organizer asked a fundamentally anti-capitalist question, the silence was tangible, and the response negligible. Few businesses stand up when there is real risk involved, and always with the bottom line at hand. Nike marketed the sacrifices that Colin Kaepernick chose to make only after public opinion had settled and the response could be forecasted. His was the bold act; he accepted the risks on social grounds, with no upside, and he sacrificed his livelihood. It is also important to recognize that brands adopt those risks against their profit margins only. They ride a tidal wave that starts with changemakers, whose actions are actually unpopular, when the stakes are at their highest. Those changemakers risk and often lose their careers and even lives.

With a little hindsight and honesty, it is easy to admit that even many academics and justice activists were at some point undereducated or ignorant on issues they champion today. Many of their strongly held beliefs in the present-day were once reviled by society at large. I encourage brands to recognize their place in the changing social climate. Companies that react to change should not confuse themselves with those that make change before it is good for business. Real changemakers make real sacrifices, and they do not leave you behind when you fail to stand with them.

1 comment on “Last on the bandwagon, first on the high horse

  1. Pingback: SW22: Last on the bandwagon, first on the high horse – The IHEID Environmental Committee

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