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Reversing ingrained social inequities is critical to achieving the UN SDGs and averting catastrophic climate change. The pandemic has laid bare the many costs of inequality — now is the time for brands to make good on their promises to address this global issue.
In the past year, inequality has become an increasingly mainstream global issue
— and one that companies are increasingly focused on. While it’s a pervasive,
long-term issue, social inequities have been
by a pandemic that has put small businesses and low-wage workers out of work,
while many large companies are seeing record
and soaring stock prices. Can the same companies and brands that are benefiting
from the current environment also be the ones who act to meaningfully reduce
Inequality is more than just income or wealth. Access to education, health,
clean air, water and housing are all barriers that inhibit many people from
growing their wealth or income. Race plays a role, too — as centuries of
discrimination against native peoples and communities of color in the United
States, for example, have resulted in inter-generational inequality that
remains pervasive to this day; it was a guiding force in last year’s resurgence
of the Black Lives Matter
the racial equity gap in the US has
Between 1992 and 2016, college-educated white people saw their wealth increase
by 96 percent while that of college-educated Black people fell by 10 percent.
While many brands have been happy to release statements and
to make donations or address social inequalities, there’s hesitation to do more
due the difficulty in measuring how Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)
actually impacts the issue.
“It’s very hard to measure and report progress — unlike with climate, or
environmental, where it’s relatively easier to set
— and that makes it difficult for companies to tell their stories externally,”
Perrine Bouhana, a director at
GlobeScan, a public opinion
research consultancy that does reputation, brand, sustainability, engagement,
and trends research, told Sustainable Brands™.
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But that’s no longer an excuse — as both societal pressure and the urgency of
the issue necessitate that brands act boldly and
if they are serious about addressing a problem that has been ignored for far too
Traditional CSR has, too often, been driven by a desire for good publicity. This
means one-off events, press releases, and commitments — like last year’s surge
in statements of corporate support for Black Lives
According to EVERFI — an
international technology company driving social change through education to
address the most challenging issues affecting society — that’s an ineffectual
“CSR initiatives frequently are one-off [that] require a surge of effort and
expense — resulting in a quick tick of positive PR that, to leadership, seems to
dissipate quickly, making it even harder for companies to view CSR as part of a
more robust profound, ongoing strategy,” EVERFI stated in a recently released
While positive, short-term publicity can seem like a win for a brand, consumers
are increasingly savvy and can often spot the difference between a brand that is
committed, versus one that is just doing it to tick a box. If a company really
wants to increase its social impact, it needs to embed this into the
organization — a shift that EVERFI believes is already happening, as “leaders
are waking up to the benefits of social impact ... There is a monumental shift
towards investing in activities that enrich an organization’s
It also requires thinking beyond your core business to all other areas to which
a business connects — partners,
even consultants. Take, for example, Intel: The tech company is best known
for its semiconductors; but its business is broad and often requires legal
counsel for a variety of reasons. The legal field is severely lacking in
diversity — at large US firms, only about 20 percent of full equity partners are
women, and only about 8 or 9 percent are minorities. So, Intel offered an
ultimatum: If you don’t make progress on diversity starting this year, Intel
will no longer retain you.
“Intel cannot abide the current state of progress — it is not enough,” Steven
R. Rodgers, Intel’s EVP and general counsel, said in a
“At Intel, below average and average on diversity is no longer good enough to be
a member of our regular outside-counsel roster."
Electronic Arts (EA) is best known for its video games, but the company
realized that it could play a role in bringing more diversity into STEAM
(science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) education. So, it
launched an EA Play to Learn Digital Education
Program to reach more students and
ensure that they can play a role in creating the technologies of tomorrow.
Another example of meaningful action is the education company Pearson. Its
Sustainable Business Plan
2030 lays out a roadmap
for how learning can create a better world — it includes pillars around reducing
barriers and increasing equity in
with an acknowledgment of the need for eliminating bias; and representing
customers, in all their diversity, in their materials.
from the Chicago Booth Review laid out the challenge: Income inequality
poses a major threat to business. Simply recognizing racism and inequality is
not enough; brands must play a leading role — and investors are, increasingly,
Bouhana urges brands to stop waiting for the perfect campaign or opportunity and
be willing to experiment more. Inaction is worse than doing your best and
failing, as the latter also provides data on how to improve.
“Transparency is important,” Bouhana says. “Stakeholders don’t just want to hear
good news from companies — they also want to hear about how companies struggle,
how it’s not easy; and how they are going to look at the problem differently, in
partnerships with new stakeholders, to address something they understand that is
The next few years will be critical. If we don’t reverse ingrained social
inequities, we’ll never achieve the United Nations' Sustainable Development
Goals, and will likely fail to make meaningful progress on climate
The pandemic has laid bare the many costs of inequality — now is the time for
brands to act on their promises and address this global issue before it’s too
“It’s great to see there’s genuine intent to address this issue,” Bouhana said.
“The pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement means everybody has realized
the significance of inequality and committed to make a difference; but it’s a
Published Aug 11, 2021 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Nithin is a freelance writer who focuses on global economic, and environmental issues with an aim at building channels of communication and collaboration around common challenges.
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.