Last week Ashton Kutcher caused a bit of a stir when he got into a Twitter debate with Walmart over the company’s low wages and huge profits. Kutcher’s initial tweet was in reaction to Walmart’s food drive for its own struggling workers:
Walmart is your profit margin so important you can’t Pay Your Employees enough to be above the poverty line?
It’s unfortunate that an act of human kindness has been taken so out of context. We’re proud of our associates in Canton.
The conversation continued with Kutcher calling out Walmart’s $17 billion in profit, and Walmart defending itself and tweeting a video, “Opportunity and Benefits at Walmart.” And of course the story of the back and forth flew all over the social channels. Kutcher has gotten himself into Twitter arguments before, but this conversation interested me as it relates to ArCompany’s Social Justice series and how Walmart compares to many of the businesses we’ve featured recently. My initial thought process was: “well, that’s one of the reasons I choose not to shop at Walmart.” This series has informed me of companies I didn’t know existed who are doing good while doing business, and has made me consider the fact that I have other options and can ‘vote with my pocketbook’ as I consume. In the midst of the current political divisiveness in the US, and feeling that government can’t do anything right, I became quite hopeless about our society and how uncivil we’ve become. Writing this series has restored my hope – the rise of social good companies tells me that there is a movement afoot among consumers to change the way the world works by the way they spend their dollars. I thought it was something that the majority of people could get on board with no matter their political alignment.
Is There a Backlash Against Social Good Companies?
When I shared the Kutcher story on my wall, a conversation I did not expect developed: Two friends of mine were disgusted with the idea that businesses should be doing social good at all. I was slightly blindsided by that; since no one is forced to buy from Social Good companies, how could anyone object? In the conversation I pointed out businesses that were 100% transparent, and successful or taking off because of both their products and their missions. The companies I used as examples, Nisolo and Sword & Plough, are very clear about their business models. Nisolo has applied for B-Corp status and Sword & Plough was founded as a Quadruple Bottom Line company. When you shop on their websites stories of living wages and social good are part and parcel of what each company stands for. The products are all hand made by people making living wages – Sword & Plough employs out of work Veterans as well as using recycled material that was destined for a landfill. It’s a win/win, right? Not to my two friends – who each come from totally different sides of the political spectrum by the way. They both felt strongly that it was businesses’ JOB to provide products at the best possible price, period. There was a lot of back and forth, but the stance against social good companies was most succinctly summed up in these two quotes:
Business is just business out to make a profit and to expand. They give a very small portion to a worthy cause is nice, but to use that to drive their business isn’t kosher in my book. and Every business is in it for profit. What they do with their profit is their business, but don’t try this social justice [stuff] to increase your profits and try and make it like you are a socially conscious person for buying our product. Just another ploy
My viewpoint in the discussion was primarily one of incredulous disbelief: the two people most ardently against businesses charging more to be able to do social good were against it in the name of Capitalism. My answer was – this IS Capitalism; no one is forcing anyone to pay more – you can still choose not to buy the higher priced, socially responsible product.
Business Doing Government’s Job?
Yes, I realize that even USING that subtitle is a hot potato, but it is a question that recurs in so many conversations about social responsibility. When I wrote about Toms Shoes and the controversy their One for One program was experiencing, Sam Fiorella reacted with this dead on comment:
“Is it fair to put the fate of developing countries on a business? Can a business truly effect ‘the root cause of poverty” that’s often rooted in history, culture, politics, geography etc.? Such solutions require a willingness of the people that live in that country and the support (or pressure) of other countries. So the criticisms of Toms is a bit harsh. However, any business that makes a profit by linking its product or brand to supporting those in need, should expect that it will be questioned by the same medium it used to build its business. I agree that helping employ locals would be a better service than giving away product; however, at least their doing something. They cared. More than I can say about most of those criticizing Toms.”
Sam’s stance that ‘at least they’re doing something’ sums up how I see all companies doing real social good as part of their mission. But it does get a bit hairy, as this comment in that conversation pushing back over Ashton Kutcher’s tweets shows:
“Living minimum wage has become a government issue the same way stopping child labor, requiring safe work environments and other “private business issues” became government issues, because the people are speaking up for fair treatment against companies that have proven over and over again that they will NOT take care of their employees until they are forced to do so.”
“Uggg… ” I think, “can’t we all just celebrate a business doing good?” But I get it – these are tricky societal issues, and when businesses blur the line and become something more, really business activists, well, they have to be ready for the push back. Some people may choose not to do business with them because of their social good stance, or, more likely, their programs may come under scrutiny; it can be a slippery slope.
What is the Future of Social Good Businesses?
One criticism of Sword & Plough in my Facebook discussion was that it had not yet turned a profit, and the critic suggested it never would. My instant thought was, “well, neither has Twitter,” but that really is off point. The reality is that socially responsible companies have been around for a long time – Starbucks is a prime example of a very successful business that makes no bones about the fact that they charge a lot for their coffee so that their employees receive a decent pay and health benefits. Toms Shoes, despite the recent discussion of its One for One challenges, appears to be thriving – and their new Toms Marketplace is showcasing a lot of smaller social good companies and has been met with a roar of positive coverage. The companies I’ve been covering in this series in recent weeks: Warby Parker, Nisolo, Sword & Plough – all are growing at rapid fire pace because they have found both a receptive audience and easily motivated brand advocates to share their stories. The rise of a new class of B Corps speaks to the seriousness with which consumers appear to be taking social responsibility – if a company has passed the rigorous application process their customers can be assured that their purchases are going to help do social good. Social Media has changed the marketing playing field as well, meaning companies with a contagious story to tell can ride its wave for a fraction of the cost of old school PR campaigns. Small businesses doing real social good can become bigger a lot quicker. Will consumers tire of the stories of good and become immune to them? That is yet to be seen, but for the foreseeable future I’d bet that this new type of business structure is going to have a large impact on how consumers purchase, and how traditional, established companies view social responsibility.
VP of Content & Strategy at ArCompany. She has an extensive background in Sales, and focuses on generational marketing and content. With Hessie Jones she founded ArCompany’s Millnnnial, GenX and Boomer Think Tanks and writes and speaks on those topics from an insights/strategy perspective.