"Social Change and Revolution" is a quarter-long project by NBN Opinion in which individual writers explore topics relating to major changes in social institutions and relations.

Graphic & Thumbnail by Jessica Chen

For the low, low price of $17.99 at Forever 21, you, too, can be a feminist. At least, you can buy a bright pink sweatshirt that says you are, in a chunky cursive print.

For any social issue you care deeply about, there’s most likely a themed product somewhere. Big brands have engaged in cause-related marketing for decades, from Virginia Slims’ iconic “You’ve come a long way, baby” ad in 1968, to the rise of “greenwashing” (advertising that misleadingly presents a company as eco-friendly) in the 1980s, to the deluge of rainbow logos that appeared after same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S. The latest iteration can be seen in corporate America’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement. In the months following the murder of George Floyd, countless brands have produced an outpouring of supportive statements and vague commitments. But who really profits when corporations “embrace” these causes? Why does this support feel more like exploitation?

It’s disappointingly easy to find the discrepancies between many corporations’ stated values and their actual practices. Take, for example, social media platforms such as TikTok and Reddit. Each has declared its commitment to advancing racial equity, but, as many users have pointed out, TikTok has been widely accused of suppressing Black creators’ content, and Reddit provided a relatively unchecked platform for white supremacists for years before finally tightening regulations. In the world of fashion, Urban Outfitters came under fire for its history of racial profiling after the brand made an Instagram post supporting Black Lives Matter.

But it’s not just the BLM movement that big brands are cashing in on. Greenwashing is as rampant today as ever, especially given the recent push to take action on climate change. Clothing brands like H&M and Zara (owned by the massive Inditex Group) tout “conscious” collections made from supposedly “sustainably-sourced materials” and offer clothing recycling programs to their customers. However, these measures can only do so much to ameliorate the impact of fast fashion on the environment. The industry still churns out approximately 1 billion garments each year, and the sheer level of rapid production that these business models hinge upon contributes massively to carbon dioxide emissions, water consumption and textile waste.

Furthermore, it’s hard to call such brands “conscious” when many fail to meet their own commitments of providing their workers with living wages and safe working conditions. Fast fashion companies often rely upon loosely regulated outsourced labor, shirking their proclaimed standards of ethical production.

Especially in the last five years, there’s also been a surge in “rainbow washing.” Every June, like clockwork, brands paste their logos onto pride flag backgrounds on social media, sell T-shirts with vague slogans about “love,” release commercials broadly celebrating diversity and self-expression and offer rainbow-themed versions of everything from Converse to Listerine. The trend seems innocuous enough. However, according to a 2019 study of over 120 companies that ran Pride campaigns, only about 64% donated a portion of their profits to LGBTQ causes. Many corporations routinely profit from Pride while contributing nothing to the community. On July 1st, the rainbows disappear.

Marketing is all about timing. Companies throw their support behind causes such as BLM or the LGBTQ+ rights movement once they’ve become mainstream enough to be profitable. Racism, homophobia, sexism and climate change didn’t become problems within the last few years; it’s just that, now, consumers are becoming increasingly attracted to companies that appear to address these issues.

As consumers, what can we do about the corporate co-opting of social movements?

We have to stop buying into it.

Large corporations will continue to capitalize on this perceived progressivism for as long as markets continue to reward them for it. By refusing to settle for empty gestures, consumers should put the pressure on brands to back their claims with substance. Fortunately, there are a plethora of resources available to verify whether a company’s practices reflect their stated values, such as the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index, the Business & Human Rights Resource Center website and CSRHub’s sustainability rankings.

Even simpler is a Google search - ask “is Urban Outfitters ethical?”, for example, and you’ll get some pretty damning results. Another great way to shop responsibly is to skip the messy corporate world altogether. Supporting small, minority-owned businesses can help uplift communities, create jobs and close racial wealth gaps while reducing the environmental impact of consumerism.

Unfortunately, it’s not always feasible to be an ethical consumer within an unethical system. While individual action is important, the government and corporations themselves ultimately possess transformative power: they must hold companies accountable for their claims about sustainability and fair labor through mandatory, standardized reporting rather than vague, selective self-audits. Furthermore, companies should be required to publicly disclose employment diversity data. Any corporation can advertise itself as antiracist; an executive boardroom dominated by white faces tells a different story. Finally, brands selling cause-related merchandise should clearly indicate whether or not any proceeds will go to nonprofits. Consumers deserve better than capitalism parading as charity.

None of this is to say that corporations shouldn’t support social movements or that every large business championing progressive ideals has malicious intent. But corporations have consistently abused such movements as clever, timely marketing angles. People have been fighting for justice long before corporate America decided equality was profitable. Where were all these commitments ten years ago? Will they still be here ten years from now? Companies must substantiate their words with persistent action. They cannot allow their newfound concern for equality to go out of style.