From Kaepernick Ad to Recycled Plastic Shoes: Is CSR No Longer a Tick-Mark Project?

Social Commentary

From Kaepernick Ad to Recycled Plastic Shoes: Is CSR No Longer a Tick-Mark Project?

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

Who’s taking the lead on climate change? Apple. IKEA. Unilever

Who’s setting an example in tackling auto emissions? Auto companies, who have (vocally) vowed to comply with stricter norms, despite the Trump administration trying to relax them.Who’s acting on ocean plastics? Adidas is by converting plastic into shoes.

Who’s sticking it up to the US government’s policies towards minorities? Nike.

Who’s being ballsy enough to tell a deeply divided nation that religion doesn’t matter? Zomato.

Who’s being even ballsier telling China that free speech is valuable? The NBA, who defended an employee’s right to criticise the authoritarian regime at the risk of losing its most valuable non-US market.

In an era where politics is increasingly centred around short-term goals like retaining power, we need someone, anyone to act as a moral compass.

I don’t know about you, but I’m seeing a bit of a trend here. Over the past few years, private companies around the world are starting to weigh in and take action on important issues – especially ones that polarise. This is quite a deviation from the traditional rules of corporate communication, which is usually pretending like these issues don’t exist. Indeed, in my past life as a social media strategist (don’t judge, we all have our dark secrets), a standard bullet point in the guidelines was “no political or religious content”. 

But in an era where politics is increasingly centred around short-term goals like retaining power (aw, you thought the ruling party actually cared about vikas?), we need someone, anyone to act as a moral compass, even if they are NASDAQ/NSE-listed. You can be cynical about the sudden enlightenment of companies who are fluent in the language of profit. You can also accuse them of moral posturing: that their “wokeness” comes with vested interests, that to resonate with a vocal, liberal audience for social media brownie points. But even if that is the case, is that really such a big problem? 

The way I see it, these companies have the distribution, the marketing might and dare I say, the creativity to get a message across more effectively than many activists or media publications. There’s also the fact that at least 76 per cent of Indian consumers feel that the brands they deal with should have an opinion on issues. And in any case, the same consumers who champion them when they are unafraid to take a stand will abandon them if their apparent genuineness turns out to be plastic (Remember how Pepsi’s efforts to be woke backfired?) 

The other reason why I believe this is a good thing is that, unlike the government, when companies take any stance, it more often than not goes beyond lip service. For instance, it’s one thing for Adidas to say they’re pro-planet, but another for them to actually invest loads of money and effort to make a shoe out of recycled ocean plastic waste. Cynics, again, will say that all this is all virtue signalling but that’s exactly the point: it is meant to be. We’ve seen in the past that industry leaders doing something like this often compels competition to follow suit or at least start a discussion, like Coke cutting sugar, or Burger King championing animal-free meat

In a way, the true test happens when sticking up for specific beliefs hurts a company revenue-wise. That’s when the opportunists are exposed. Take for instance, Nike which didn’t flinch when several outraged pro-Trump customers burnt its shoes. You might not believe it, but in an age where people have become desensitised to generic, wishy-washy please-all advertising (here’s looking at you, banks!), taking a stance can be a legitimate brand-building exercise, like Tanishq and Fastrack have shown in India. Perhaps, the best example of this is the NBA, which risks losing viewership in China, its most lucrative overseas market for protecting a team manager’s right to free speech (he sided with the Hong Kong protestors). It’s a ballsy move at a time where our leaders have misplaced their moral compasses and are spending more time bickering than fixing issues. 

Morality and capitalism is an unlikely combination that we might not deserve, but it is sure as hell what we could use at the moment.