From profits to prophets: why has big business gone woke?

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Saturday 9 October, Church House, London


In recent years, many of the biggest corporations in the world have been prominent in promoting ‘progressive’ causes. Many high-profile business leaders see themselves as thought leaders, too, offering fulsome support to a range of campaigns on issues such as gay rights, anti-racism and climate change.

In 2018, Nike signed an endorsement deal with Colin Kaepernick, the NFL player who sparked the movement for taking the knee as a protest against racism. Last year, major music-streaming services including Spotify, Apple Music, Amazon Music and YouTube Music pledged their support for Blackout Tuesday after the killing of George Floyd. Almost every big company is keen to promote its work in promoting sustainability, such as McDonald’s choosing to sell only organic milk.

Corporate politics hasn’t simply been about projecting a progressive image, but has actually getting involved with political and media debate. This year, new TV channel GB News was hit with a social-media campaign demanding that big companies withdraw their advertising from the station. Major companies and brands like Kopparberg, IKEA, Specsavers, Octopus Energy, Grolsch, Moneysupermarket and Vodafone soon joined in. Big corporations like Coca-Cola have registered opposition to changes in voting laws in the state of Georgia.

For supporters of this trend, it represents a welcome shift in corporate strategy. In the past, big firms were associated with a conservative outlook (particularly towards women and ethnic minorities), an emphasis on free-market economics and behind-the-scenes lobbying in support of their own narrow commercial interests. Increasingly, those firms are now at the forefront of pushing liberal ideas.

Some critics doubt the sincerity of this corporate turn, seeing it as ‘wokewash’, simply another form of branding designed to increase sales. Other critics worry that this is a turn away from exactly the sort of profit-seeking behaviour that has driven economic and technological change successfully in the past. If, as the Davos 2020 manifesto suggests, ‘a company serves not only its shareholders, but all its stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers, local communities and society at large’, will it lose sight of the importance of making money?

Is it a positive sign that big corporations are starting to care about something more than profits? Are woke campaigns and branding a distraction from the need to provide good products and services that consumers want? Is there any truth in the critical joke ‘Get woke, go broke’? What does it mean for democracy if corporations play an increasingly activist role in pursuing a liberal agenda?

Laura Bierer-Nielsen
political consultant; founder and director, Foundation for Uyghur Freedom

Konstantin Kisin
comedian; creator and co-host, TRIGGERnometry YouTube show; author, An Immigrant’s Love Letter to the West

Professor Vicky Pryce
chief economic adviser and board member, Centre for Economics and Business Research; author, Women vs Capitalism

Dr Diane Wei Liang
professor of business; author, The Eye of Jade and Lake With No Name

James Woudhuysen
visiting professor, London South Bank University; co-author, Energise! A future for energy innovation; co-author, Why is construction so backward?

Rob Killick
CEO, Clerkswell; author, The UK After The Recession