It seems that the tenets of Critical Social Justice (CSJ) theory have now seeped into every well-known organisation. Billboards, TV adverts, and even our food packaging serve to remind us of the systemic racism, unearned privilege and unconscious bias etched into society’s subconscious.
As these “woke” ideas diffuse into mainstream thought, many companies feel compelled to act. Several have presented their employees with mandatory antiracism seminars, implicit bias training sessions, and concepts based in Critical Race Theory such as “white privilege” and “white fragility”. Following the tragic death of George Floyd, the gradual imposition of these ideas accelerated, with businesses grappling for redemption amidst the ideological reckoning.
Of course, few would dispute the importance of the corporate sector addressing discrimination and promoting inclusion. But the uncritical adoption of CSJ in the workplace goes beyond expected corporate social responsibility.
CSJ is a social and political ideology rooted in postmodernism and neo-Marxism. It holds that ubiquitous and invisible power structures, such as patriarchy and white supremacy, pervade our societies and govern our interactions. These systems benefit the dominant, “privileged” groups in society (e.g. white people) whilst oppressing minority groups (e.g. people of colour). Beyond race, critical theory also consigns individuals to identity groups based on their gender, sexuality, religion and a panoply of other personal attributes which “intersect” with one another to determine the degree of social privilege any given individual is purported to have.
Having adopted this worldview, corporate leaders seek to demonstrate their commitment to social change by prioritising diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace. This can involve anything from educating their employees through anti-bias training to actively discriminating against members of “privileged” groups in their recruitment processes.
However, many of these “woke” corporations are not as devoted to equality, justice and humanitarianism as they at first appear. In fact, beneath their liberal veneer of unconscious bias training, diversity quotas and feminist campaigns, a slew of these companies are simultaneously engaged in deeply illiberal practices. Whilst lecturing the public on our unearned privilege and inherent racism, well-known brands continue to abuse human rights, facilitate modern slavery and support totalitarian regimes.
To demonstrate that “woke” is not synonymous with being ethical, I will discuss five examples of staggering corporate hypocrisy:
- BAE Systems
When choosing their lead sponsor for Gay Pride 2019, Pride in Surrey turned to none other than Britain’s largest arms manufacturer, BAE Systems. The multinational weapons contractor is ostensibly committed to furthering LGBTQ equality, insisting that “Love Conquers Hate”.
As well as supporting their LGBTQ and “Ally” employees, BAE reassures the public of their mission to “embrace cultural diversity and condemn racism, bigotry and violence”. Recently, BAE’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Ruchi Jalla revealed that the company is pursuing “solutions to structural racism”, by offering “privilege resources” to educate others about their undeserved advantages in society.
And yet, despite claiming to stand against violence and to support LGBTQ rights, BAE Systems remains the third biggest market for Saudi Arabia, a country in which homosexuality is punishable by death. Not only that, but the company has supplied the Saudi military with £15 billion worth of arms since 2015, fuelling a bombing campaign against Yemen that has led to over 60,000 civilian fatalities, as well as the death of 85,000 infants from starvation and other avoidable diseases.
In 2014, Starbucks launched its “Race Together” campaign, a movement which involved baristas writing “Race Together” on coffee cups and attempting to engage customers in conversations about race. Grounded in Critical Race Theory, the campaign featured in USA Today newspapers alongside an “unconscious bias” experiment.
In 2018, the multinational coffee giant also imposed a racial “bias training” programme on 750,000 of its employees, closing all its stores across the US for the day.
But are Starbucks as committed to social justice as they appear to be? While insisting that it is 99% ethical, Starbucks violated Brazilian law last year when inspectors discovered slave labour on their plantations for the second time in nine months. “Workers reported dead bats and mice in their food,” the Fair World Project reports, as well as “no sanitation systems, and work days that stretched from 6AM to 11PM”. Despite company values “based on humanity and inclusion”, Starbucks has been affiliated with five farms that use child labour and pay workers as little as 31p an hour. The Brazilian Labour Ministry reported that the number of workers enduring these slave-like conditions reached a 15-year high in 2018, the very same year of Starbucks’ groundbreaking anti-bias programme.
Last summer, Nike announced a $40 million commitment to the Black community in America in an effort to address racial inequality and fight systemic racism. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, the athletic footwear company promptly changed its slogan to “Don’t Do It”, demanding the public not to stay silent over institutional racism.
And yet, seemingly unaware of their core values of “community and social responsibility”, Nike have been accused of using sweatshop labour since the 1970s. The brand has been linked to human rights abuses such as the employment of 12-year old girls working 70-hour weeks in Indonesian sweatshops and children picking cotton in Uzbekistan under the threat of torture and detainment.
Last year, the Washington Post also revealed that Nike’s factories rely on the forced labour of detained Uyghur Muslims in China. A local government report found that a factory affiliated with Nike is “equipped with watchtowers, barbed-wire fences and police guard boxes.” At least 80,000 Uyghurs are thought to work in these factories (which also supply Amazon, Samsung, H&M, Zara, Microsoft, et cetera). Sent to these factories by local authorities, workers toil away all day churning out shoes for lines such as Nike’s Air Max, before receiving “patriotic education” in the evening.
What’s more, in spite of numerous female empowerment campaigns over the years, investigations into Nike’s factories found that around 75-80% of the workers are girls in their teens or early twenties, often working 9-13 hours a day, 6 days a week, and reporting pay so low that they cannot meet their basic needs.
Coca-Cola is committed to putting their “resources and energy toward helping end the cycle of systemic racism.” To demonstrate their dedication, the soft drink manufacturer has introduced various educational programmes to its employees, including Diversity Training, a Diversity Speaker Series and a Diversity Library. Last summer, they also announced $2.5 million in grants to go toward criminal justice reform, recognising their duty to “speak up as allies to the Black Lives Matter movement”.
Failing to recall their pledge to “stand with those seeking justice and equality”, Coca-Cola has also been involved in the convenient forced labour of detained Uyghur Muslims. As a result, the company recently joined the likes of Nike and Apple in a push back against a bill prohibiting imports from slave labour in China. “Respect for human rights is a fundamental value of The Coca-Cola Company,” their website continues to claim.
5. Ben & Jerry’s
Ben & Jerry’s are fervently committed to the fundamental tenets of CSJ. “Silence is NOT an Option,” reads their website, asserting that “we must dismantle white supremacy”. The multimillion-dollar ice cream manufacturer argues that things won’t change “unless and until white America is willing to collectively acknowledge its privilege.” Ben & Jerry’s proudly support reparations for slavery, chronicling the history of racism in their new podcast and educating their audiences with articles such as “7 Ways We Know Systemic Racism is Real”.
But how socially responsible are Ben & Jerry’s? According to the Guardian, in 2018 migrant workers from the ice cream company’s dairy farms campaigned against the brand for its egregious work conditions. Workers were housed in barns and unheated trailers before being made to work 12 to 14 hour shifts without rest days.
Despite “calling for a cleaner, greener, fairer future for all”, Ben & Jerry’s parent company Unilever has been involved in several environmental scandals including links to illegal rainforest destruction and Indonesian forest fires. The corporate giant has also been accused of sourcing palm oil from plantations with slave labourers as young as eight years old.
Unsurprisingly, the list goes on. Beneath so many surface-level performances of progressivism lies a disturbing disregard for human welfare and real social justice. Whether these companies are suffering from severe cognitive dissonance, or consciously leveraging CSJ to distract from their dirty work and preserve their profits, the schism between their public politics and private misdemeanours is telling.
What their hypocrisy reveals is that adherence to CSJ does not necessarily signal that an organisation is truly ethical. It is therefore vital that we do not determine the moral values of a company simply by its degree of “wokeness” and start to distinguish between those sincerely committed to social progress and those simply posturing in adherence to a political orthodoxy.
It is also essential that we push back against those companies trying to dictate our ethics along ideological lines. We cannot allow authentic liberals to be considered amoral by their employers—and even fired from their positions—for having reservations about the assumptions of CSJ. Those who believe in equality of opportunity, fundamental freedoms for all and universal human rights should not have to live and work in fear of expressing their opinions, especially when so many organisations do not internalise their own public values.
Regardless of whether the company you work for is well-intentioned in its social justice aims or fundamentally dishonest, we all must retain the right to question the imposition of CSJ in the workplace. We cannot grant corporations the power to dictate what is ethical nor can we grant them the power to make us doubt our own morals.
Crucially, you are not inherently amoral if you stand against Critical Social Justice – and at the same time, you are not automatically moral if you stand with it.
Freya India is a freelance writer interested in politics, culture and psychology. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/freyafia