April 04, 2017
The New York Times had a front page article Friday, “Brands Wrestle With Whiplash of Viral Anger,” that explores the requirement for increased nimbleness on the part of brands as activists pressure them concerning the placement of their advertising. While the article is concerned with advertising, it has an important quotation that speaks to something deeper:
“Americans are now demanding that their brands articulate their values and weigh in on political issues, and I think the degree to which they are expecting that is really quite new,” said Kara Alaimo, who teaches public relations at Hofstra University.
The consumer demand stands in sharp contrast to the claim by Milton Friedman in the same newspaper almost fifty years earlier: “There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud” (NYT, Sept. 13, 1970).
While today’s article is quite good, giving the context of a handful of current controversies, it misses a more crucial question: Why do Americans demand more of their brands? Why do Americans now expect CEOs to speak out about presidential executive orders, state laws, and a myriad of concerns that, at first blush, seem removed from their corporate responsibilities?
One macro explanation is that the social contract has changed. While numerous philosophers have described the “social contract,” Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Du contrat social (1762) may be the canonical description of the concept. Rousseau’s concept included business but his notion of the social contract was largely a consideration of individuals and the government. An individual yields sovereignty to a government that in turn provides prosperity, security, and health. Rousseau’s concept did not envision the circumstance we have today. Corporations have evolved such that they wield enormous resources and, thereby, influence. Multi-national corporations now have annual sales that dwarf the economies of many nations. The graphic below shows that, if the largest corporations’ annual sales were considered alongside the GDP of nations, more than 40 corporations rank in the top 100. In 2016, Wal-Mart ranks #21, with an economy larger than that of Sweden.
The enormous size and scale of multinational corporations fittingly drives the desire on the part of consumers that these corporations express the values of those consumers. Hence, a controversial state law may spark statements from large employers in that state. Further, leading institutions, like the United Nations, via the Global Compact which engages more than 9,000 global companies in support of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, and the Catholic Church, in documents like Laudato Si’, attempt to persuade the corporate community that business must attend as well to the care of creation and concern for the most poor on the planet.
A changing landscape with greater concentration of power in large, multi-national corporations brings greater responsibility for attending to matters that were once not a day-to-day concern in the operations of a corporation.
March 03, 2017
World Water Day, on 22 March every year, is about taking action to tackle the water crisis. Fresh water, the most important resource for humankind, cross-cuts all social, economic and environmental activities. It is a condition for all life on our planet, an enabling or limiting factor for any social and technological development, a possible source of welfare or misery, cooperation or conflict. World Water Day is celebrating water as well as highlighting water related challenges. Today, there are over 663 million people living without a safe water supply close to home, spending countless hours queuing or trekking to distant sources, and coping with the health impacts of using contaminated water. Please take time to learn more and take action. On Sunday, I learned about a notable effort based here in Milwaukee that is also worth examining: Global Partners: Running Waters.
The Human Right to Water, formally recognized by the United Nations in 2010, clarifies that it is the responsibility of companies to ensure their operations do not infringe upon the right of individuals to sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water. This right is further buttressed by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 6, which calls for global water quality to be improved by reducing pollution and minimizing the release of hazardous chemicals.
Given its scale, the garment industry has a massive impact on global water quality. Our clothing requires enormous amounts of water. A simple t-shirt needs 700 gallons of water to make, and a pair of jeans require 1,000 gallons. Our leather products– those comfortable shoes next to your bed, that favorite purse or coat– have polluted India’s rivers with emissions of chromium and animal feces. Today, I am wearing a shirt manufactured in Indonesia, a land wear 200 textile mills and garment factories contribute to the “Death of the Citarum River.”
As the garment industry went off shore, it went to countries less equipped and less regulated in the proper handling and disposal of the chemicals and by-products of the garment industry. In some places the effects have been devastating. The documentary “The True Cost” vividly depicts the health effects from the cotton industry (in Texas and India) as well as the impact of the dyes and chemicals in the apparel and footwear factories.
Finally, each time we wash our clothes, our synthetic materials put out roughly 700,000 microplastic fibers that eventually make their way to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, according to a study from the International Union for Conservation of Nature released in February. While much remains unknown at this point, consumer products, including synthetic clothing, could contribute up to 30 percent of global ocean pollution and, in many developing countries, are destroying marine life habitats.
While the total environmental effects of the garment industry are difficult to quantify as it has not been subjected to sufficient research, it is patently clear that tackle global water problems undoubtedly also means tackling our fashion problem. Our clothes, as currently made, harm global water supplies. Real engagement in these issues from the fashion industry could make a significant contribution to global water quality. Our health, our future, demands that we try.