By Joe Leonard
The recent global social movement against police violence and institutional racism has provoked a myriad of brands to take action. Those with a history of standing up in the past were mostly respected for their responses. Others didn’t fare so well. For brands in the Mexican market, now is the time for them to start using their influence to make meaningful contributions to society, increase social mobility, and improve their workforce’s equality, if they want to be taken seriously in their responses to future social movements.
In the US, the George Floyd movement has been helping to get the message to sink in that black people can no longer do this work alone. Institutional racism has deprived them of reaching positions of power that they need to effect immediate change. Therefore, the movement is asking all with privilege and power, mainly wealthy white people, to finally change the system that prevents black people from getting justice, equality, and most urgently from getting killed by the police. It’s created a new reflection about the far reaches of racism and privilege, making it clear that keeping to yourself and enjoying your privilege implicates you in a racist system.
Mexico is potentially ripe for a similar social movement to what we’ve seen in the US. Although the two countries are very different, they do have some key factors in common: inequality, violence, and racism. In Mexico, 84% of the population doesn’t have job security or a salary that meets the needs of their family. Femicide kills on average ten women a day and tens of thousands of women already took to the streets to protest this in March, 2020. In June, a man in Guadalajara named Giovanni López died from a brain injury after being arrested for not wearing a mask in public, which sparked public protests. Also, racism, the normally taboo subject in Mexico is being brought into the mainstream conversation by activists like Yalitza Aparicio, who recently published this piece in the New York Times on indigenous and domestic workers’ rights and racism in Mexico.
In addition, all of these factors are worsened in Mexico by a suffocating lack of social mobility. Mexico ranks 58th (US is 27th) out of 82 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Social Mobility Report. The report mentions a high ratio of young adults not working or in training (18.4%). In terms of education, 42.5% of children are below minimum proficiency by age 10. While the unemployment rate is low (pre COVID-19), the following factors are hurting Mexico’s employment score: low female labor participation, high hours per week, vulnerable employment, low social protection, and unfair wages. So, the poor state educational system, coupled with discrimination, often makes it difficult for people from families of limited economic means to rise up the corporate ladder.
When it comes to a company’s role and response to social movements, major brands no longer have the luxury of being impartial. Customers increasingly desire purpose driven brands aligned with their beliefs. A 2018 study by Accenture found that half of customers in the UK wanted brands to take a stand on issues that they care about. Even more impactful was the finding that 37% of consumers have walked away from a brand that they were frustrated with in this regard, and 25% never return.
This has created a conundrum for many companies, especially ones that haven’t been politically active in the past. At a time when all of their peers are making public statements, the options might only seem to be: say nothing and fear being ostracized, give a statement that ends up being perceived as hollow, or a make promise that can’t be fulfilled.
Ben and Jerry’s, a US ice cream company founded in 1978 in Vermont, didn’t see the recent protests as a PR challenge. The founders are both long time activists and promoting environmental and social causes has been one of the most well-known things about the brand. In 2000, the company was acquired by Unilever, whose intention was to keep the brand image the same. As a part of the deal they set up an independent self-selecting board of directors with only 2 of 11 seats being filled by Unilever. Over the years they have continued to speak out on racial justice, prison reform, living wages, and other issues. They publicly came out in support of Black Lives Matter in 2016 and last year they had a limited-run flavor called Justice Remix’d, where some of the proceeds went to a racial justice organization.
So, it came as no surprise when Ben and Jerry’s wrote several blog posts in response to the George Floyd protests, including Defund the Police and Invest in Our Communities and We Must Dismantle White Supremacy. These statements were written to educate the public and didn’t promote their products at all.
Social media was impressed by the blogs and even more so when they learned about Ben & Jerry’s longstanding commitment to social justice. A TikTok user named Delawesst got 4 million views in a video saying, “Did you know that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is so expensive because they hire people recently released from the prison system and pay them $16 or more an hour?… They’re doin’ the damn thing.”
However, some see that Ben & Jerry’s long standing commitments and recent response doesn’t go far enough. Like Curtiss Reed Jr., director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, who wants them and other companies to be willing to take actions that would affect their bottom line. He suggested naming an ice cream flavor after a prominent activist of color such as Mohammad Ali or Colin Kaepernick, which would risk a drop in sales, instead of more neutral white figures like Stephen Colbert or Jerry Garcia.
Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Twitter all responded with statements in support of the protestors and they all collectively pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in donations to racial justice issues. However, in 2014, when there were mass protests over the murders of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, all of these organizations were silent, with the exception of Twitter, (Jack Dorsey covered the issue thoroughly). Nobody was TikToking recently about how great the tech giant’s response was because they don’t have a history of action oriented social-justice actions.
The tech giants’ calls for racial justice also brought to light the problematic issue of their own diversity. It made people think, well that’s great you’re making these donations, but what opportunities have you provided to black people within your organization? Google reports that less than 4% of employees are black (with over 100,000 employees). They have pledged to improve that statistic.
As social mobility is low in Mexico, social movements are bound to ask large companies about the diversity in their workforce. A good place to start preparing is by hiring, mentoring, and promoting people from different social backgrounds, and outside the private school/private university elites, to be more representative of the country. In addition, Mexican companies need to do a better job at putting women on their boards and in senior management roles. Please read our recent blog post, The Patriarchal Mexican Board, on gender inclusion in Mexican companies.
When companies respond to social movements the public will see through shallowness and their punishments to offending brands will only become increasingly worse. The affected communities aren’t looking for empathy, they want real political change. Large companies wield a lot of power and the public sees them using it to influence policy in their favor. The message is clear from consumers; make meaningful investments to your brand’s social causes and make your workforce more diverse, now.
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