Protect the environment! Promote gay marriage! End female genital mutilation of South American snails! The platform of the Democratic Party? Nope. Just a small sample of modern-day corporate causes.
A decade ago, if you believed in a cause, you actually got out and worked for it. You handed out fliers, went to rallies, held fundraisers, sent in a donation. Now, all you have to do is buy a cup of coffee or plunger and voila! you’re changing the world for the better, one Oreo at a time. Because today, it’s not enough for Starbucks or Kraft or Home Depot to provide goods and services to make a profit. Now, businesses have to be socially conscious, morally responsible, and of course, environmentally sustainable. It’s become so ubiquitous, I wouldn’t bat an eye to find out that Denny’s is donating a free condom to Planned Parenthood for every Grand Slam breakfast it sells. I mean, isn’t the sausage-condom link obvious?
The mentality has trickled down to the consumer, too, who’s now expected to make or abstain from purchases based on the company’s stand on this or that issue. And a disturbing number of us have bought into this. We choose Tree Bark Puffs over an edible cereal because Tree Bark Puffs has a pink ribbon on the box. And buy organic coffee beans (even though we drink tea) because .0003% of profits goes to blind Tibetan monks. Sure, cotton underwear feels better than hemp, but a sweaty, scratchy butt is a small price to pay to eliminate pesticides in bug spray.
For poor scrupulous souls, the pressure is intense. “Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. I bought two boxes of Thin Mints last week and neglected to shop at Chick-fil-A.”
Oh sure, we can dress up this trend with impressive-sounding labels like “corporate responsibility” and “ethical consumerism.” But there’s a few others, too, that I think describe it more accurately: stupid, idiotic, foolish, inane. It’s about the most vapid thing to come down the cultural pike since Desperate Housewives.
Why? Because the business of businesses is to make money. Companies have one basic goal: to make a profit so they can maximize returns to shareholders. People have social and moral responsibilities, not corporations. Why not leave the social engineering to the people in a position to make it happen, like activist judges and Catholic-in-name-only politicians?
Never mind that it’s just bad business sense to take on a controversial cause that alienates part of your potential customer base. When Kraft promoted an ad last week featuring a rainbow-creme Oreo, it stupidly made buying a cookie the equivalent of supporting gay marriage. Let’s say Alfred Kinsey’s made-up statistic is true and 10% of the population is gay, with half the heterosexuals supporting gay marriage out of guilt. That’s still 45% of Americans who DON’T support it. Why risk ticking off half the people who might buy your product?
But maybe the number of customers who flock to Kraft because of the Oreo ad will more than make up for the ones who abandon it in opposition, some might say. Eh…I doubt it. Sure, folks may rally and make a special appearance for “Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day,” but unless you patronize a business regularly, you’re unlikely to keep coming back just because you agree with its stand on [insert cause here]. People strongly opposed to a company’s position on a social issue, on the other hand, are likely to boycott it in favor of a competitor. I love coffee so much I could mainline it, but I’ve boycotted a major coffee chain for the past few years because my conscience tells me to. In the end, a company’s controversial stance will just end up costing it money.
There’s something else that irritates the snot out of me about all this corporate responsibility: it drives up the cost of goods and services. It’s not like companies are bankrolling these initiatives with the CEO’s annual bonus or taking it out of profits; just like taxes and corporate donations, businesses simply build the added cost of promoting A, B, or C into the product or service.
Haven’t you noticed that the more social causes Starbucks takes on, the more the cost of its lattes increases? Pretty soon, you’ll need a second mortgage to buy that Grande Caramel Macchiato. But at least you’ll be supporting the reproductive rights of Argentinian llamas when you do.
As a Catholic, I’ve watched with dismay as Big Business has started supporting social causes that go against my faith. But even when I agree with a company’s cause, I still have a knee-jerk reaction against it simply because it’s idiotic for companies to promote social change. I live in Alaska and support most of my state’s conservation efforts because I appreciate and respect our natural resources. Yet every time I see the word “green” on a new product, I want to carpet bomb an old growth forest. When I hear another company taking an official side in the culture war, even if it’s my side, I start checking out the competition. Quite frankly, it irritates the hell out of me that I can’t just buy a tub of ice cream that’s just a tub of ice cream, and not a symbol of social progress or brotherly love. And I can’t believe I’m the only person who feels this way, either.
Smart business leaders will forgo the current lemming-like plunge into social and political issues we’ve seen from the likes of Disney, Google, and dozens of other corporate giants. Instead of pandering to this trend, consumers ought to insist companies stop being stupid and just stick to what businesses do best: making money. Stop telling us to “go green,” and you’ll see a lot more of our green in your coffers.