Profit over protest: Modern companies treat activism as a trend

Calla McBride

In our modern world, performative activism — activism motivated by potential social capital rather than one’s devotion to a cause — seems to permeate every aspect of our society. This activism is commonly used by high school students for the sake of college applications, influencers on social media seeking followers and power-hungry companies looking for a quick buck and an extra customer. Corporations are eager to support causes they can capitalize on, often treating them like a trend. Yet, these same companies seem to stay silent on causes they deem too controversial, worrying that supporting these social justice issues will cause them to lose customers — or worse, profit.

Companies know what their customers want, and understand that advocacy, performative or not, benefits them. A 2020 “Engage for Good” survey revealed 85 percent of executives believe that being a purpose-driven company drives profit. This survey also revealed 59 percent of Americans feel it is no longer acceptable for companies to be silent on social justice issues. 66 percent of respondents said they would consider a company’s purpose when making purchase decisions. Furthermore, in an October 2021 Bark survey, 80 percent of respondents said a company’s involvement in social issues would affect their support of a corporation.

Illustration by Calla McBride

Clearly, involvement matters for consumers and corporations. But many companies abuse this expectation by practicing performative activism. Urban Outfitters, for example, a clothing company popular amongst teens, released a Pride clothing line in June (Pride month) of 2021.  Only half of the total profits were donated to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, which focuses on LGBTQIA+ issues in K-12 schools. Urban Outfitters failed to mention what they did with the remaining half, implying that it was instead kept by their company. Although keeping a portion of the product is not inherently bad, seeing as though the goal of the Pride line was to raise money for LGBTQIA+ organizations, donating 100 percent of profit is only logical. For example, KIND snacks and American Eagle both donated 100 percent of the profits from their Pride lines to LGBTQIA+ organizations. If these companies can do this, why can’t Urban Outfitters?

Furthermore, it was uncovered in 2015 by an UpWorthy investigation that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who once publicly compared homosexuality to bestiality, has received political donations from Richard Hayne, president and CEO of Urban Outfitters. Despite appearing like an ally, Urban Outfitters’ activism seems to be merely performative when the companies’ funds go directly into the pockets of anti-LGBTQIA+ politicians.

Additionally, after searching through Urban Outfitters’ social media accounts, all mentions of Pride or fighting for LGBTQIA+ rights came to a complete stop after June 30. How genuine can Pride activism truly be if it never goes beyond the bounds of minimum effort? 

The argument that companies only use June to be allies because the month is specifically dedicated to the LGBTQIA+ community is not a valid excuse to skip allyship for the remaining 11 months of the year. Some companies understand that being an ally means working for change beyond the confines of a dedicated month. 

Bombas, a seller of socks and other undergarments, donates an item to homeless individuals for every item sold year-round. Chief marketing officer Kate Huyett said there are higher numbers of homeless LGBTQIA+ individuals than in the general population, inspiring her to help the LGBTQIA+ community outside of just June. Additionally, the company donated more than 300,000 pairs of socks through the Ally Coalition, an LGBTQIA+ non-profit organization.

While some companies like Bombas have extended their activism, others have stayed silent altogether r on issues they cannot profit from. The passing of the 2021 September Texas abortion law, which prohibits abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, has demonstrated just that. Despite being vocal about Pride advocacy, companies like Urban Outfitters, American Eagle, McDonald’s (who notably, is a sponsor of International Women’s Day) and many additional powerful corporations chose to remain silent.

Illustration by Calla McBride

It is true that companies are not obliged to speak on these issues. However, when these powerful companies demonstrated they cared enough to get involved with Pride month, their subsequent lack of effort in other social causes shows how companies cherry-pick their involvement with issues — illustrating that customer satisfaction and profit were their main motives. 

These companies could have easily contacted Texas senators, released statements denouncing the law or linked resources to help fight the law via social media.

Madewell, for example, who released a “Love-to-All” collection this past June and continually uses social media to speak on issues, signed a letter against the passing of the Texas abortion law. The letter stated that restrictions on reproductive care will be “bad for business” and hurt workers, customers and the state’s economy. The “bad for business” side of the letter demonstrates that profit is still a contender in their involvement, however, their involvement shows Madewell is working beyond solely using pride month to be an activist. 

Companies like Bombas and Madewell make it clear they are working to be involved in social issues year-round, rather than participating in activism for profit. We must start holding companies to this standard of consistently using their platforms to speak and act on social issues. 

Doing a bit of research into a company’s history and involvement with social issues can help determine whether they deserve to be supported. Additionally, reaching out to businesses via social media and holding them accountable to their ‘allyship’ can be an easy alternative to inform them that, as a customer, you are unhappy with their actions. Companies using Pride month ‘activism’ as a way to gain customers and profit is unacceptable. Spending our money on companies that use their platform and power year-round to be involved with social issues forces other businesses to a higher standard. Change starts with the people. Corporations are powerful, but only if we give them that power.