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corporate activism

Contributor(s): Laura Fitzgibbons

Corporate activism is a public stance taken by a major company to positively impact social change or legislation. In some situations the activism might be driven by a desire for a company to reach a specific audience or demographic who purchase their products. In other situations the owners and leadership within a company may use their personal social influence to support a particular cause such as green computing or robot ethics. Regardless of the intentions behind the move, corporate activism has been shown to have an impact on public consumption of products and can either provoke boycotts or drive increased sales.

Throughout history, companies have weighed the possibility of the change they intend to create against the public relations implications of their approach. To limit legal liability, some chief executive officers (CEOs) create codes of corporate social responsibility and ethics for their employees to follow. Corporate leaders who put their personal views behind their business practices are often spokespeople for the cause who are willing to take the spotlight regarding their stance.

There have been many situations where a business has been founded by activists entirely in response to a social need. One example is the company EMPWR, which manufactures jackets that can turn into sleeping bags for homeless people. The company hires single parents from local shelters and provides them with training and full-time employment as seamstresses. Similar companies have sponsored the invention of coats that turn into tents or life jackets for refugees. Another example is the One Laptop Per Child project (OLPC), an initiative aimed at providing inexpensive laptop computers to children in the developing world as a means of bridging the digital divide. OLPC was founded by Nicholas Negroponte, also founder of MIT Media Lab.

Sometimes an act of corporate activism follows in the wake of a popular social movement, but it may also be inspired by studying the interests of a particular company's audience on social media.  In 2018, for example, many companies in the United States took a stance about whether to maintain their ties with the National Rifle Association (NRA) in response to student posts and protests calling for gun regulations. That same year, the footwear company Nike released an ad that featured athletes who overcome obstacles. Nike was boycotted by some customers for featuring football player Colin Kaepernick in the ad, but the company also saw an increase in sales from those customers who appreciated Nike's support of the athlete who knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality.

This was last updated in December 2018

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