With a growing concern among corporations to establish a purpose and clearly discernible values for their organisations, are our favourite brands becoming social enterprises? In short, no — definitely, no.
For example, Nike may take a strong stance in its compelling, impressive and progressive marketing campaigns that spotlight all manner of social justice issues, but this alignment with a cause is simply aimed at making their company more profitable. That’s not a particularly cynical take: if an organisation that was established to make money can do so successfully while also lending support to an important cause, everyone wins. While Nike’s alignment with #BlackLivesMatter drew wide acclaim for the somewhat risky and divisive move (which ultimately paid off), sports and culture writer Hemal Jhaveri drew parallels between this move and the way in which “the beauty industry co-opted female empowerment and body positivity to sell soap and eyeliner”. Pride Month and its parades have become another particularly vexing time for those who see corporate social activism as empty: while the number of rainbow-coloured products surges, donations to LGBTQIA+ organisations do not match up. Brands, it seems, are not always putting their money where their marketing is.
Assuming genuinely good intentions, what does it take for a company to participate in social entrepreneurship and make a measurable difference? Corporate social entrepreneurship (CSR) aims to create new opportunities that generate both social value and financial returns, often moving to more entrepreneurial-style processes and styles of planning. For Adobe, this has meant tackling issues surrounding sustainability, particularly renewable energy use. They’ve made impressive moves towards more sustainable business practices, which makes good financial sense when considering that investing in clean tech that uses less energy does turn out to be more cost-effective in the long run. When it comes to their moves to support local renewable energy legislation, the company states plainly on their blog that, “Policy advocacy isn’t just a moral imperative — it’s a business one. Consumers expect businesses to advocate for sound renewable energy and climate policies”. While Adobe encourages its customers to join them in reconsidering their own energy use, the imperative is simple: support us, buy our products, because we’re already doing the work and will continue to do so.
For every shopper who’s deeply concerned that their shampoo doesn’t contain palm oil, that their alternative milk source doesn’t require an excessive amount of water to grow and that their consumer behaviour has a positive impact, there’s another whose choices are based solely on price, or convenience. Shoppers select the product, shop or brand that aligns with their own values, and for many, a strongly-held belief is that items should never cost as much as those that come imbued with a feel-good message. Whether brands are engaging in social entrepreneurship, social activism or just good old-fashioned CSR, it’s difficult for us to know their true intentions. Ultimately, our consumer behaviour comes down to supporting the brand that — to the best of our knowledge — brings our own conscience comfort.