TAYLOR: The importance of corporate 'Woke'-ness

Being socially irresponsible can have dire financial consequences for companies


National Geographic Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg  emphasized that the magazine has a responsibility to provide readers with a look into the reality of the world.

Courtesy Joseph Lasica

As a part of their April issue on race, National Geographic took a look at its archive and found that its past coverage was racist. University History Prof. John Edwin Mason, who specializes in African history and the history of photography, assisted in the examination. Mason found that, “until the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them . . . . Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics . . . noble savages — every type of cliché.” He concluded that unlike other magazines like Life, National Geographic did not push readers to see outside the stereotypes prominent in white American culture.

Editor-in-Chief Susan Goldberg penned the article and emphasized that the magazine has a responsibility to provide readers with a look into the world, especially in regards to covering race. The rest of the issue will be dedicated to looking at race through a global, scientific and cultural view. This move to self-reflect on their actions and to address a critical social issue is an example of the rising importance of Corporate Social Responsibility for many companies in the United States. 

CSR is defined as the promotion of “a vision of business accountability to a wide range of stakeholders, besides shareholders and investors. Key areas of concern are environmental protection and the well-being of employees, the community and civil society in general, both now and in the future.” The concept emerges from the idea that companies aren’t isolated economic entities detached from society at large. 

The shrinking role of government and increased customer interest are cited as some contributing factors to CSR. It can take the form of initiatives or implemented regulations for a social issue. The benefits of CSR can include workforce diversity, a greater ability to attract and retain employees, increased sales and customer loyalty and an enhanced brand image and reputation. Recent studies show that customers care significantly about the principles of corporations, and being socially irresponsible can have dire consequences for companies. 

Earlier this year, H&M faced backlash for an online advertisement that featured a black boy modeling a sweatshirt reading, “coolest monkey in the jungle.” The Swedish clothing retailer issued an apology for the ad which was accused of having racist undertones by many of their customers on social media. Some encouraged a boycott of the store for their poor styling decision. Stores in Johannesburg were vandalized by protesters who knocked down mannequins and racks of clothing, causing the police to come and the chain to decide to close South African stores. 

A week after the controversy, H&M announced that they hired a global leader in diversity and inclusiveness. It is not clear what this role will entail, but it is clear this controversy had something to do with the new position. This example proves the extreme lengths customers can go to when they are offended by a company and the urgent measures that a company must take in response to such controversy. 

On March 16, CNN reported that Snap Inc.’s stock price fell around 4 percent after singer, entrepreneur and philanthropist Rihanna denounced an ad running on the Snapchat app. The ad was for a mobile game and said, “Would you rather slap Rihanna” or “punch Chris Brown.” Back in 2009, Brown pleaded guilty to felony assault after Rihanna accused him of beating her  while they were dating. She accused the ad of making a joke of domestic violence and intentionally bringing shame to victims in a statement on her Instagram story

Many of Rihanna’s fans agreed that Snapchat was wrong and discussed boycotting the app on other social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram. Snapchat removed the ad and issued a statement to CNN that called the ad “disgusting,” but the controversy erased nearly $800 million from their market value. What happened to Snap Inc. is similar to H&M, and the drop in market value demonstrates the extreme consequences that companies can face if they do not act socially responsible. 

A 2017 study found that 87 percent of Americans will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue that they cared about and 75 percent will refuse to purchase a company’s products or services upon learning that it supported an issue contrary to their beliefs. Another key finding was that 78 percent wanted companies to address important social justice issues. 

The H&M and Snapchat controversies were reactionary, but National Geographic’s self-examination identifies the problem before it can be accused of anything. The magazine didn’t call itself out for a small incident, but a history of problematic behavior — reassuring their readers that it is not the company it once was and is concerned with racist depictions in media, both internally and externally. National Geographic understands that as a company, it has a responsibility to its customers and should use its platform to address social issues. It is not that the statements and initiatives by corporations practicing CSR will fix all of the problems in the world, but it is increasingly evident that consumers, and their money, want corporations to be socially responsible. 

Zari Taylor is a Senior Opinion columnist at The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com.

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