In late 2018 Nike launched it’s ‘Taking a Knee - Just Do It’ advertising campaign; a nod to Colin Kaepernick’s protest pushing for racial equity. In early 2019, ‘Gillette released it’s ‘The Best a Man Can Be,’ advertising campaign; tackling intersections of toxic masculinity. In both instances, we saw huge corporations mainstreaming a positive social justice message; moves that will most likely prove profitable.
For Nike, despite the fact that after the campaign went live social media was covered with angry white people burning previously purchased Nike gear, the move was probably lucrative given that Nike’s target market consists mostly of black people, upper middle class people, and Democrats - all groups who are more likely to support Taking a Knee. In Gillette’s case, over the past 10 years, their share of the razor market has dropped from 70% to 50% (being undercut by lower cost brands like Schick and Harry’s). As a result, Gillette has had to cut prices by 15% across the board. Recent market research suggests that millennials give more credit to brands using socially responsible appeals - meaning millennials, a key purchasing group, may be more willing to pay higher prices for Gillette products again if the brand appears more socially responsible than cheaper competitors.
In reality, a huge corporation is only entering into social justice movements when it’s lucrative… But does that take away from the value in the message? Can the message stop being socially just if it was also done to make money?
This is a question we have thought long and hard about here at Re-Imagine Education. We sell social justice curriculum in the interest of doing social justice work, and we want to make a living doing so. In our perspective, if a corporation is seeking to capitalize off of the grassroots movement for social justice that is currently gaining traction in the country - it is no longer for justice, that is, if they are aiming to make social justice a commodity, then they are morally and ethically repugnant. On the other hand, if they are looking to democratize the workplace, paying a livable wage, providing the type of benefits befitting a multinational corporation, and doing so in an ecologically responsible way they are contributing to the common good. The question of if capitalism would allow such a corporation to exist is another issue we can take up at a different time.
Let’s look at Nike again: In the same year they launched, ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” Nike's billionaire co-founder Phil Knight (while not an employee) donated over 3.5 million to the RNC (an organization that explicitly took offense to Colin Kaepernick's protest at the time) while Nike Inc. donated $85,000 to democratic candidates. Additionally, according to numerous reports, Nike has drawn sharp criticism for exploiting labor in developing countries. For example, in Vietnam, where Nike has 91 factories and over 400,000 workers, minimum wage is approximately $150 USD per month, with a livable wage of $290 USD, Nike could easily pay that without any significant hit to their bottom line. For Nike’s support of Colin Kaepernick to be anything more than the commodification of social justice for profit it must be followed by a series of important steps to end the exploitation of people of color worldwide.
Looking closer at Gillette we find evidence of a similar disinterest in justice. Proctor and Gamble (P&G) is the parent company of Gillette and has experienced years of global criticism surrounding the production of palm oil used in several of their product. In December 2018, the Rainforest Action Network slammed P&G along with 6 other companies for continuing to source palm oil from Malaysian palm oil manufacturers where they found forced labor, human trafficking, and unsafe living conditions. While some of the 7 companies complicit in the supply chain, like Pepsi, have set goals to source 100% certified sustainable palm oil by 2020, P&G remains silent on the issue. Again, if Gillette’s tagline, ‘The Best a Man Can Be,’ is just the first step and is followed by P&G turning the mirror on it’s practices to end their role in exploitation of women and people of color worldwide, great, if not their most recent campaign cannot be seen as anything other than an attempt to commodify the #MeToo movement and the current rise in consciousness around gender justice.
Now, let’s imagine for a second that Nike and P&G are taking all the steps behind the scenes to end the exploitation of people or color. In this scenario is it ok for them to profit from the support of social justice movements like Taking a Knee?
There is a line of thought that argues that those folks who enjoy privilege based on their identity should not profit from working towards the mitigation of that privilege. Is it possible for white folks to make money while working towards the destruction of white supremacy? Is it possible for men to make money working towards the end of patriarchy? We wrestle with these questions constantly. If the responsibility for justice lies with the privileged how can we not take every opportunity? How do we not take advantage of the space our privileges offers to speak truth to power? How do we keep from leveraging our privileged identities and centering ourselves, perpetuating the very systems we purport to be in opposition of? We would love your thoughts… Truly.
Ian McLaughlin & Ryan Williams-Virden