(Ben Green) #1

58 Time December 2–9, 2019

For decades, mosT companies wenT To greaT
lengths to avoid opining on social issues. No longer.
After a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso,
Texas, in August, the retailer said it would stop sell-
ing ammunition for military-style assault rifles.
Pat agonia closed its offices and stores for part of
the day on Sept. 20 so employees could participate
in a global climate strike. And in November, Chick-
fil-A, which has come under fire for supporting
Christian organizations that oppose same-sex mar-
riage, said it would stop donating to those groups.
What’s changed? Frustrated with political
gridlock, consumers have turned to business for
leadership. “I think business has to pick up the
mantle when governments fail you,” Patagonia CEO
Rose Marcario told TIME earlier this year. Young
consumers are also more likely to patronize brands
whose business models claim to include social
change. Nine in 10 members of Generation Z, who
account for as much as $150 billion in spending
power globally, believe that companies have a
responsibility to social and environmental issues,
according to McKinsey. In an age when companies


Protesters outside an Equinox in
West Hollywood, Calif., on Aug. 9

have detailed information on customers’ ages, incomes
and political persuasions, they’re calculating that these
socially aware consumers are more lucrative than those
who might be put off by social-justice campaigns.
“In a politically polarized world that is saturated in
social media, you’re not going to escape politics,” says
Jerry Davis, a professor of management and sociology
at the University of Michigan. “This is a sea change—in
the past, companies kept their heads down and did their
best to never be seen.”
Companies are also trying to make their politics more
appealing to Generation Z as they try to recruit young
workers. Last year, after thousands of employees de-
manded that Google not work with any entity building
“warfare technology,” Google decided not to renew a
contract with the Pentagon. In September, after Amazon
employees planned a walkout to call attention to the com-
pany’s lack of leadership on environmental issues, Jeff
Bezos released a climate pledge.

“Woke capitalism” started picking up steam early
last year. After the Parkland school shooting, Delta
joined a dozen or so companies in ending discounts
for NRA members, even after the state of Georgia
threatened to take away nearly $40 million in state tax
breaks on fuel the airline received. That September,
Nike released an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick telling
customers to “believe in something, even if it means
sacrificing everything,” a show of support for the
former NFL quarterback who, after kneeling during the
national anthem to draw attention to racial injustice,
was not signed to a team. In November, Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms
shoes, announced the largest-ever corporate gift—$5 million—to groups
working to end gun violence.
Not every customer, or cohort, has welcomed the shift. In April 2016,
for instance, the retailer Target faced a backlash after releasing a statement
saying that customers and staff could use the bathroom that corresponded
with their gender identity. Christian groups called for a boycott; a pastor
said the company was opening the door for “perverts and pedophiles”;
and some customers said they would switch to Amazon and Walmart.
Still, companies are learning that it may be riskier to pretend it’s
all business as usual. After the Washington Post reported that Stephen
Ross, an investor in Equinox and SoulCycle, was hosting a fundraiser for
President Trump, customers urged a boycott. Although SoulCycle said
Ross was a “passive investor,” attendance at SoulCycle classes decreased
significantly in September and October from the same period last year,
according to Earnest Research. When the NBA tried to walk back a
tweet by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey supporting
protesters in Hong Kong, fans in the U.S. mocked the league for valuing
the Chinese market more than democracy. The NBA quickly pivoted.
At the TIME 100 Health Summit in October, NBA commissioner
Adam Silver said he hadn’t intended the initial response to read as
a condemnation of Morey’s words. “Maybe I was trying too hard to be
a diplomat,” he said. □

In the era of “woke capitalism,” apolitical

is not an option By Alana Semuels







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