In the wake of the passage of Georgia’s reprehensible anti-voting law, corporations have been alternatively berated for not speaking out against it or praised for doing so. It is common to see comments on social media like “Delta privately supported the bill but American Airlines opposed it, so I know who I’ll be flying with post-pandemic!” Though I suppose it’s better that big businesses say the right thing than be silent, this whole notion of frequenting one corporation over another based on its supposed ethics raises a fundamental question: is it possible to be an ethical consumer in an unethical system?
Leaving aside the near-impossibility of keeping abreast of each company’s actions–Which supported the anti-voting law? Made campaign contributions to Republicans who voted to overturn the election? Refused to disclose its carbon emissions? Doesn’t have diversity in senior management?–there are major challenges for the consumer. First, headlines can never capture the nuance of these issues. Big business is in the business of making money, period; they make campaign contributions based on what will serve the bottom line, which is often tax cuts and loosened regulations. That many of the elected officials funded by these companies–Delta and American alike–don’t appear to believe in democracy is only an issue to the extent that activists call them out on it and the busy electorate notices.
Second, the waters can get muddied very quickly. Whole Foods purports to be good for the environment because it sells expensive organic food to wealthy people, but it has also devastated local grocery stores and is virulently anti-union. Costco is praised for paying its employees well, but it derives significant profits from the sale of cheap gasoline–exacerbating climate change. Nike puts on all manner of empowering ad campaigns and has stood by Colin Kaepernick, but it continues to use slave and very-low-wage labor at its overseas factories. At its core, no big business is socially responsible; boycotting one in favor of another is a game of Whack-a-Mole. Today’s “good” company will be tomorrow’s villain for the simple reason that all of them are, in varying degrees, harming people and the planet. (To be clear, I am not talking about small and medium-sized businesses. If you want to shop ethically, go to your local grocery store, coffee shop, bank or credit union, restaurant. This essay is about large, publicly traded firms.)
Third, corporate America will do what’s right only so long as it is profitable to do so, or at least won’t hurt their bottom line. What happens when the ethical practice is unprofitable? Particularly in the case of publicly traded firms, the answer is that there is no such thing as a”double” or even “triple bottom line”– that is, profit, people, and the planet. No, there is only profit and varying degrees of finding ways to do well, or appear to do well, on the latter two, provided that they do not impact the first. Those who say that enlightened companies realize that there is an alignment between what’s good for the bottom line and what’s good for the planet are ignoring just how hard it is to reap the kind of profits the markets expect without causing harm.
In a world of bewildering complexity, the consumer can almost never win, for we are up against massive marketing campaigns, disinformation, and a lack of time to sort truth from half-truth and outright lies. None of which is to say that we shouldn’t do what we can to hold corporate America to account. But when we do so, we must be clear-eyed about what we’re up against. In a fundamentally unjust economy, there are few powerful people and businesses that are driven by justice, as opposed to profit and power. While in a particular instance, a particular firm might say or even do the right thing, that is not the same as being a driver of positive change. “Business is a force for good” is the mantra of those who like the status quo and want to sell the rest of us on the idea that only the same entities that have gotten us into this mess can get us out of it.
True change can only occur when we take an economy and society-wide approach to justice, and that requires good public policy at the local, state, and federal level. The rash of anti-voting legislation being proposed and enacted nationwide was made possible by the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the onslaught of dark money spurred on by the Court’s decision in Citizens United–allowing unlimited political spending by corporations. If we focus only on a particular fight (such as the Georgia law) and only on the stances of individual entities, we will miss the broader problem–and in missing it, fail to address it. While it is useful to boycott companies acting in bad faith, we musn’t forget that our law, tax code, and regulations allow bad faith actions; until we change our framework, we’ll find ourselves struggling to determine which airline, fast-food joint, or clothing company is less bad on a given day and on a given issue. Who has time for that?