“Corporate social responsibility” has been a buzzword since the 1960s, but there is no time for corporate wokeness like the present. Pinkwashing, greenwashing and overall disingenuity are ubiquitous in the business world. Given how fashionable progressive activism has become during the Trump presidency, this trend has only escalated.
Just as the average citizen sees an American flag and associates it with patriotism, home, or liberty, corporations like Nike or Bank of America seek to position themselves as symbols of virtue.
Bank of America proudly rolled out a marketing campaign in which it would cut ties to border enforcement firms. A corporate spokesperson claimed this move was due to the “recognition of the concerns of our employees and stakeholders in the communities we serve.” Similarly, and ludicrously, Nike has cancelled a American flag themed sneaker embossed with the Betsy Ross flag. According to Nike spokesman, Colin Kaepernick, this was because the flag is racist.
These episodes not only serve to demonstrate how puritanical progressivism has become but its complete and total hypocrisy. These recent moves are nothing more than the usual “woke capital” virtue signaling that we are inundated with daily. As usual, each firm preaches corporate wokeness at home while remaining firmly complicit in actual abuses overseas.
Acts of corporate wokeness are an important part of their brand due to the semiotic nature of culture. Culture is partly a series of shared symbols used to interpret the world around us. Just as the average citizen sees an American flag and associates it with patriotism, home, or liberty, corporations like Nike or Bank of America seek to position themselves as symbols of virtue.
It isn’t key that Nike cares about the alleged racism of the Betsy Ross flag (hint: even the experts the Rolling Stone dug up for their fawning piece admitted it’s not a white supremacist symbol) or that Bank of America is concerned about migrants. It’s purely about positioning your brand in a way that is associated with progressive virtue. It’s a cynical branding move worthy of Pete Campbell or Don Draper.
These corporations see power in progressive politics and thus seek it out, hoping to convert it into an increased market share.
Such acts of faux-idealism are limited to the homefront, however, as overseas investments and supply chains remain ripe for good old fashioned cynicism.
While criticizing historical flags for their nonexistent ties to American slavery, Nike itself profits from labor conditions that are so similar to slavery, it is a distinction without a difference.
For instance, while posturing themselves as against detention in the United States, Bank of America is deeply embedded in the People’s Republic of China, acting as a key investor for Chinese state-owned enterprises. They maintain this cozy relationship with Beijing, even as the government is engaged in an ongoing mass imprisonment of millions of Muslim Uighurs.
While “Orwellian” is an overused term, there are few terms that can adequately define the plight of Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang. One put it this way, “We have a saying in Hotan: If you go into a concentration camp in Luopu, you never come out.”
For years Bank of America was content to do business with Chinese firms in Xinjiang, participating in the wholesale looting of the Uighur homeland. To denounce the separation of families at home while profiting from those who are orchestrating an ongoing cultural genocide, goes beyond simple hypocrisy into sheer sociopathy.
While Bank of America may attempt to defend itself, saying it had recently divested from the Chinese Construction Bank, the oppression of the Uighurs and mass construction of concentration camps has been ongoing for decades. Furthermore, Bank of America maintains deep ties to companies looking to do business with the Chinese government in Xinjiang.
Nike’s record is equally uninspiring. While criticizing historical flags for their nonexistent ties to American slavery, Nike itself profits from labor conditions that are so similar to slavery, it is a distinction without a difference. Though it positions itself as an industry leader on labor reform, Nike continues to operate sweatshops all over Latin America and Southeast Asia.
Even more disturbingly, Nike may have also profited from the Chinese detention of Uighurs, as cotton may have come from companies in Xinjiang, which Nike denies. Given where the top cotton producer is located and how ubiquitous forced Uighur labor is used in sportswear supply chains, it seems highly likely that Nike has directly profited from the enslavement of Chinese Muslims. The fact that Nike has been routinely eager to please Beijing, it would be surprising if they had not.
There are a few lessons to take from these hypocritical corporate Elmer Gantrys.
Corporations, like capitalism in general, are a means to an end.
The first is that no one should take progressive preaching seriously from any corporation. By this point it seems to be mainly a tell for trying to compensate for actual corporate abuse abroad. The administration should look into the connections between virtue signalers and how willing they are to profit from the literal enslavement of millions in Xinjiang.
Secondly, conservatives need to be less sanguine about corporations in general. Corporations, like capitalism in general, are a means to an end. They help can offer products, serve as useful actors in the market and help grow prosperity. They can also abuse overseas, act as governments unto themselves and undermine conservative policy goals.
If conservatives are serious about creating a lasting coalition to govern, we cannot allow ourselves to be merely the corporate party only to be taken advantage of by those who would signal virtue but sell misery.
Joseph S. Laughon is a political thought graduate of Concordia University, Irvine and a specialist in the logistics industry. He lives in Los Angeles, where he writes on culture, religion, politics and national security. His own writings can be found at Musings On The Right.