The Trouble with Brand Slacktivism

The Trouble with Brand Slacktivism

Rebekah Lindsay

    Empty black squares in support of Black Lives Matter congested social media users’ feeds on Black-Out Tuesday last summer. Among them were posts from large corporations and fast-fashion brands like Nordstrom and Boohoo. Every June—like clockwork—brands swap their customary logos for rainbow versions in support of Pride Month and the LGBTQ+ community. Similarly, an increasing number of companies, like H&M and Uniqlo, falsely market products with buzzwords like ‘sustainable,’ ‘eco-friendly,’ and ‘natural.’

    With lines between marketing and genuine care blurred, it’s difficult to determine the underlying intentions of popular brands.

    On one hand, superficial activism for the sole purpose of appeasing customers seems deceitful—especially without tangible follow-through—yet brand activism has the platform to highlight social and environmental issues. Is it really that bad for brands to become involved in activism?

    Inherently, no. In most cases, there’s no harm in a statement spreading a positive message. Specifically regarding corporate response to Pride in 2019, a Reboot Online Marketing survey found that 84% of LGBTQ+ respondents had a positive response to ‘Pride-wash.’ However, the study also monitored the actions of 122 companies visibly supporting Pride; it found that only 64% of said companies donated to charitable LGBTQ+ causes.

    Herein lies the problem, not that brands support social causes, but rather that they often monetize movements without pledging support in return. Baseless actions and duplicitous motives don’t help. Further, such claims can falsely promote a product and manipulate consumers.

    In 1986, environmentalist Jay Westerveld, coined the term ‘greenwashing,’ referring to when companies falsely represent themselves as more sustainable than they really are. For example, fast-fashion brand H&M recently released a small sustainable ‘Conscious Collection.’

    However, one collection doesn’t negate their total environmental impact. The new collection accounts for only a fraction of their total carbon footprint. Rather than actually providing sustainable fashion, H&M succeeded only in pretending that they cared about the environment while simultaneously silencing critics.

    Beyond fashion, in 2020 Shell released an ad campaign featuring their renewable energy efforts. Facebook ended up removing it for claims of lacking transparency of environmental policies.  A Climate Investigation Center report found that fossil fuel companies spent 1.4 billion dollars on advertising from 2008-2017. There is nothing wrong with promoting sustainable energy, but when a company spends a disproportionate amount of money marketing themselves as sustainable instead of working towards sustainability, their words seem disingenuous. 

    Similarly, last summer corporations like Twitter and Netflix altered their logos or released statements in support of the Black Lives Matter protests condemning the wrongful murder of George Floyd. On Twitter, Netflix wrote, “To be silent is to be complicit. Black lives matter. We have a platform, and we have a duty to our Black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up.” Yet, while many brands showed surface social media support #blm, few reflect the same principles within the diversity of their executive staff. 

    A Coqual (formerly Center for Talent Innovation) report found that Black professionals fill only 3.2% of executive/senior-level managerial positions. Further, only 0.8% of Fortune 500 companies have a Black person as a CEO. Additionally, this same study reported that only 40% of professionals think their company has an effective diversity and inclusion strategy.

    Social media response is fine, but activism is more than slapping on a new logo and releasing a faithless post. Companies should follow up their claims with tangible action. 

    Brands could follow the lead of Nike who pledged $40 million to support the Black community or Amazon who plans to double Black representation in executive positions in 2020-2021. While not the only necessary steps towards change, their actions point in the right direction.

    Instead of capitalizing on social movements through minimal slacktivism, brands can promote lasting change if they follow up their words with continuous and material initiatives.