BLM protest

Should businesses be in the business of driving social change?

Companies are increasingly being pushed to take a stronger stance on social issues, while at the same time facing pressure to not be 'too political’. Navigating the balance is no easy task.

Tami Iseli

11 March 2024

7 minute read

I recently had the opportunity to attend Assembly, the first B Corp conference to be held in our region in the last five years. For three days, more than 180 purpose-driven, for-profit businesses from Australia and New Zealand gathered to discuss a kaleidoscope of thought-provoking topics. But the one that really got the cogs spinning for me was a session on finding a meaningful role for business around social issues.

The session was facilitated by Alexander Dirksen, the founder of strategy consultancy Past Futures, whose stated mission is to ‘amplify the efforts of those radically reimagining the status quo’. Dirksen challenged the audience to consider what ‘meaningful solidarity should look like through the lens of an organisation’.  

In a nutshell: Should businesses take a stand on social issues?

Without delving into the nuances of this question, it’s easy to answer with a knee-jerk ‘yes’. Should businesses take a stand for the environment? You’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d say no. Should businesses be working towards gender equality? Again, hard to argue in the negative.

But as you dig a bit deeper on this question, the waters start to get a bit murkier. What about deeply polarising issues like the war in Gaza? And what does it actually mean to ‘take a stand’? Do you need to be an activist, dedicating company time and resources to externally advocating for a cause? Or is it enough to lead from within your own organisation?

These are not questions that were directly addressed in the session but issues that I pondered afterwards. I should preface the following monologue with the disclaimer that these views are my own, and may or may not reflect those of Luminary as a whole.

Should business and politics be kept separate?

For a long time, Luminary had a sort of unspoken policy of not publicly commenting on political matters. Politics can be divisive and our brand was friendly, neutral – if it were a human, it’d be the kind of mate you could rely on to diffuse an argument at the pub. But in more recent times, we’ve started to edge – with gentle baby steps – into the world of ‘polite’ political discourse. 

In December 2017, we celebrated marriage equality in the office and on our socials. The following year, we became carbon neutral, making a pledge to continue to offset our carbon impact into the future. And last year, we publicly expressed our support for The Voice to Parliament

We’re certainly not in the realms of political activism, but as our brand has matured we’ve started to air our views a little more.

At the time that same sex marriage was legalised in Australia, our CEO, Marty Drill, had this to say: “We rarely discuss politics or religious beliefs as we are a team of many cultures and backgrounds. Today, I acknowledge that Australia is the 26th country to legalise same sex marriage because it is not about politics, it is about humanity and equality. Today is a day where it is ok to love who you love and be who you are.”

We can no longer afford to hide behind the idea that it is not the role of business to dabble in societal issues. There are problems in the world that need a collective solution – and business is a powerful force. Activists and governments cannot turn these problems around without the support (and resources) of business. To be silent is to be complicit. And in many cases, like the climate crisis, we are fast running out of time.

What if I alienate my audience?

Most of us are people pleasers at heart – we’re wired to avoid causing offence. Similarly, as business owners and brand custodians, we naturally seek to broaden our reach, not contract it. So what if you take a stand on something that doesn’t align with all of your stakeholders’ views? 

Obviously the more controversial the subject matter, the higher the risk that you will alienate a larger portion of your audience. But in doing so, you also have the potential to create stronger brand allegiance. Branding is about identifying your audience. You can’t be friends with everyone and in most cases you shouldn’t try. To some extent, good brand positioning is actually dependent on alienating certain audiences. 

As Luminary CEO Marty Drill put it, “Not everyone is going to love what you do. And that’s ok. These are not your people. Focus on your niche. Find your tribe. Don’t try to focus on everyone. If you are talking to everyone, you are not really talking to anyone”. 

Patagonia Founder Yvon Chouinard once famously said “If you are not pissing off 50 percent of the people, you are not trying hard enough”. That might be a pretty hardline view, but it illustrates the point. Yes, you risk alienating some of your potential customers by taking a strong stand on issues of social justice, but you can also cultivate a fervent and dedicated fan base in the process. 

Whether such a strong activist position is appropriate for a particular company or brand will depend on a range of factors, not the least of which is the company’s ability to hold the position authentically.

Practise before you preach

More than ever, companies are coming under fire for false representations about their corporate social responsibility claims. ‘Greenwashing’ – where marketing is deceptively used to persuade the public that an organisation's products, aims, and policies are environmentally friendly – is particularly rife. 

The ACCC’s report ‘Greenwashing by businesses in Australia’, released in March last year, found that 57 percent of the brands it reviewed were making potentially misleading environmental claims. More than half of the 2000 Australians surveyed, reported feeling ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned about the legitimacy of environmental claims from businesses.

It’s all well and good to publicly take a stand on a matter of social justice, but unless your own house is in order, you’ll just show up as inauthentic. That’s not to say you need to be perfect – no company has all the answers, and we shouldn’t let lack of perfection lead to inaction. But if you can’t stand up, hand on heart, and say your business is moving the needle in a positive direction, you need to step off the pedestal and focus on your own internal practices first. 

My conclusion?

To be honest, when I sat down to write this piece, it had a different title - ‘Why businesses need to be in the business of driving social change’ – but as I considered the issues in more depth, my position softened. Why? Because I think the question is more nuanced than I initially gave it credit for.

Do I think businesses should take action on social issues? Absolutely. Without question. As my organisation’s ‘B-keeper’ (driver of B Corp initiatives) and a passionate social justice advocate, it’s something I feel pretty strongly about. We should always strive to do more and be better. But perhaps the moderation of my position hinged on how I ultimately chose to conceptualise ‘taking a stand’. To me, taking a stand is something you do loudly and publicly. 

At the end of the day, I think standing for something within your own business is better than not standing for anything. Even if that means standing for ‘fixing’ something that’s broken internally. Not every business is comfortable with shouting about that kind of thing from the rooftops. And that’s ok. Standing for something quietly is better than standing for nothing at all. 

Starting small is also better than nothing at all. We shouldn’t let expectations of scale paralyse us into inertia. It’s not every brand’s role to be an activist but at the same, companies cannot continue to turn a blind eye to social injustice and environmental destruction. Business can no longer hide behind a veil of political neutrality to justify inactivity. 

We need to continually strive to raise the bar and do better – however that might look from where we currently stand.

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