Slacktivist Investing: How Corporate Activism Goes Wrong

Good intentions? Or just good PR?

November 2022

Script

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Big business in America. A brutal, dog-eats-dog world.

Titans of industry in cutthroat competition.

The only goal is making money. As much of it as possible. And there are no lines they’re not willing to cross to get there.

That’s the story we’ve been telling ourselves for a long time anyway. And, sure, it’s true of some companies at some times.

But today? I don’t know. You don’t see a lot of top hats and canes anymore. I mean, have you noticed how much of

American business today is just … guys in oddly casual clothing telling you how much good they’re doing? How their companies are making the world a better place?

Y’know, unless there’s a little extra money to be made by having … flexible principles.

That never hurt anyone. Right?

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

We are living in a golden age of corporate responsibility — at least if you’re going by the press releases.

Today, many major corporations spend just as much time telling you about the good they do in the world as they do pitching you the products they want to buy.

And there’s good reason for that. Consumer surveys show that the public’s desire to buy products from ethical companies is at an all-time high. i

All of which sounds great, but … what happens when you start asking follow-up questions?

Like, which issues is it most important for a company to be ethical about? How can we tell if they’re actually being ethical? And … are we all just getting strung along here?

Let’s consider some of the evidence.

Maybe you’re passionate about social justice. So is the NBA. The league has actively encouraged its athletes to speak out on social issues.ii So much so, in fact, that it even allowed players to replace the names on their jerseys with activist slogans. iii

But that concern with social justice doesn’t seem to extend to, for instance, China’s human rights issues. Perhaps because the Chinese arm of the NBA was valued at $5 billion in 2019.iv

That’s when a Houston Rockets executive simply tweeted "Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong." A tweet that quickly got deleted. And led to an official apology from the NBA — the Mandarin version of which was a little more groveling than the English version.v Because, as the NBA’s commissioner later admitted, the tweet cost them "hundreds of millions of dollars."vi

Now, maybe the tweet legitimately offended the Chinese people, but it’d be hard to know — since Twitter is banned in China.vii

Maybe you’re passionate about empowering women. So were the folks at State Street, the financial services firm that erected the "fearless girl" statue in New York, staring down the famous Wall Street bull. Upon its installation, the sculpture was hailed in some quarters as a feminist triumph… viii

…Which made it awkward that the company erected it in the middle of a federal investigation that eventually led to a multi-million-dollar settlement for underpaying female employees, but … you know, details.ix

Maybe you’re passionate about gay rights. So is Amazon. In June of 2021, the company celebrated pride month by hoisting the pride flag above its Seattle headquarters.x And in June of 2022, they celebrated by…

…removing LGBTQ products from their website in the United Arab Emiratesxi — where the State Department warns that homosexuality can be punished by execution. xii

Now, sure there are always going to be some companies who don’t quite live up to the values they proclaim. Which is why some people think we have to make much more sweeping changes to ensure good corporate citizenship.

That’s the idea behind the recent trend of ESG investing — which stands for environmental, social, and corporate governance.

ESG is supposed to inject investors with a new sense of responsibility, getting them to focus on sustainability and corporate citizenship in addition to the bottom line. Which seems reasonable, right? But here’s the bad news: So far, it hasn’t done much of either.

An analysis of more than 20,000 mutual funds found that the ones with the most "sustainable investments" underperformed the ones with lower levels of sustainability.xiiiWhich is maybe ok. After all, the whole idea is that investors might accept a lower return if they think it will make the world a better place.

But … about that. Research from Columbia University and the London School of Economics actually found that the firms in ESG funds had worse track records for complying with environmental and labor laws than those in non-ESG ones.xiv

All of which points back to one point: It’s easy to say you’re in favor of some noble cause. And, look, if you’re a CEO, it also tends to be good for business. But actually following through on those principles … usually comes with sacrifices. And it’s not clear how many people are really willing to make them.

Are American businesses ready to leave money on the table to stand by their beliefs?

Are American consumers willing to pay more or endure more inconvenience to stand by theirs?

You can make reasonable arguments for either answer to those questions.

But it’s hard to make one for getting all of the benefits of having taken a stand … without bearing all the costs.

So, maybe we should all adjust our standards just a tad.

Maybe businesses should only make pledges they can actually follow through on.

Maybe consumers should be a little more skeptical of slick corporate marketing.

And maybe, just maybe … the CEOs could wear a tie every now and again? Is that really so much to ask?

Sources

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Footage | CNN // CNN Money // Bloomberg // NBC // NBA // New York Times // Reuters // U.S. Department of State // Twitter // SSRN // https://sustainablebrands.com/read/supply-chain/ikea-m-s-lululemon-join-brands-protesting-forced-child-labor-in-uzbek-cotton-fields // Cision // Global Heroes // Harvard Business Review // Hollywood Reporter // Marketwatch // KC Green: Gunshow // Getty: Fotosearch / Stringer, Craig K, Pekic, Piotr Marcinski / EyeEm, Bettmann / Contributor, ZargonDesign, Kevin Dietsch / Staff, Justin Sullivan / Staff, Joe Raedle / Staff, Victor Metelskiy, Bonetta, Negoworks, Bluberries, Lily Lawrence / Stringer, Gregory Shamus / Staff, Alex Bierens de Haan / Stringer, Mike Ehrmann / Staff, Kevin C. Cox / Staff, Lintao Zhang / Staff, Zhong Zhi / Stringer, Tim Nwachukwu / Staff, Streeter Lecka / Staff, Feng Li / Staff, Rarrarorro, Monica Schipper / Stringer, Drew Angerer / Staff, David Ryder / Stringer, Helivideo, CommandoXphoto, Vichie81, Gian Lorenzo Ferretti Photography, Schroptschop, Westend61, Sebastain Kaulitzki, Ayala_studio, Peter Dazeley, ALotOfPeople, Rawpixel, Studiodav, Brent Durand // Unsplash: Anandu Vinod, Mockaroon, Logan Weaver | @LGNWVR, Annie Spratt, Wilhelm Gunkel, Kaleb Tapp, Max Kukurudziak, Michael Jasmund, Mackenzie Marco, Bagus Hernawan, Maxim Hopman, Lo Lo, Jouwen Wang, Anirudh, Behnam Norouzi, https://unsplash.com/photos/Fr6zexbmjmc, Sara Bakhshi, Oriol Hausmann, Malik Mccotter Jordan, Philip Martin, Made By Morro, Benjamin Rascoe, Ben Weber // Pexels: Ketut Subiyanto, Ryutaro Tsukata, Cottonbro, Karolina Grabowska, Pressmaster, Sora Shimazaki, Dinielle De Veyra, Werner Pfennig, Mart Production, Cordeiro Suekel // Flickr: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, James Vaughan // Vecteezy: Goff.brian, Graphics RF // Amazon // Ebay: Rosenjerom // Trade Union Unity Magazine // CITED SOURCES AND NEWS OUTLETS ARE NOT AFFILIATED WITH AND HAVE NOT ENDORSED OR SPONSORED ANY PORTION OF THIS PRODUCTION. 

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