Updated: Apr 28
Brands have capitalised on the intersection between social justice and business, but how far have they really come as a result?
Beyond the aesthetics’ of anti-racist solidarity needs to come actual change.
Last summer we saw bright infographics and promises in posts by different brands and businesses as each of them peddled out in comms about combating racism. Yet, if transformative action isn’t taken alongside these displays of ‘allyship’, then how can they truly be distinguished from performative activism?
It’s easy to capitalise on social justice, and in fact, it’s beneficial for brands to do so; a 2018 report from an Edelman Earned Brand study showed that nearly two-thirds (64 per cent) of consumers around the world now buy on belief.
Keeping this in mind then, charting an examination into the progress companies have made since summer last year is imperative if we are to properly gauge the authenticity of their claims as more than just performative. As the world awakens to yet another crisis brought about by white supremacy in the form of the rising hate crimes reported by those in the East/South-East Asian diaspora, we are now on the precipice of what we saw last summer. Looking back, and taking note of the changes companies did (or did not make) in response to racism in their institutions will give us a glimpse into not only what the current moment holds, but also what corporate anti-racism strategies may look like moving forward.
The call’s for action against racism (and systemic violence) saw the financial sector, both in the UK and abroad, respond in a myriad of ways.
Some of the more positive responses came from banks like Starling, who donated and partnered with two organisations, The 4Front Project and Colorintech, that help the black community in the UK fight against different facets of institutional racism.
However, not every bank’s approach was as supportive.
The UK’s Business in the Community Race At Work Charter (launched in 2018) is a charter obliging employers to collect and publish British staff diversity data. While some British banks had already signed the charter, prior to the events of last summer, others have only just now signed the charter, after external pressure, with some signing just weeks after Floyd’s death.
Despite the charter not having an explicit time limit, most of the UK’s top banks still have not published any UK ethnic diversity data, with some of the big names including banks like Morgan Stanley Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse and Bank of America.
This lack of transparency comes at odds with the statements these banks have issued regarding racism and equality. While some of them may say that their disclosures were incomplete because not enough people had voluntarily declared their ethnicity, this still isn’t a good enough excuse to allow for such blatant gatekeeping of information that could have shed light on the structural failings of diversity in these institutions.
Even some of the banks that did disclose their data saw varying degrees of success, with banks like Barclays, NatWest Group and Standard Chartered disclosing overall figures for “BAME” (or Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) staff numbers, but failing to break these numbers down to their specific racial groups.
However, there were banks that did go that step further and break down their ‘BAME’ data. The results are as follows:
In HSBC’s UK workforce, 2.4% of staff have self-identified as Black, but among senior leaders, this falls to 0.9%.
At UBS, 2.9% of its total UK workforce have self-identified as Black compared with 1.9% at senior levels.
At Lloyds, 1.5% of UK staff are Black, but among senior management, this falls to 0.6%.
While some of the banks listed above have made efforts to list specific racial diversity targets for their UK workforces, most have not, and if they have, it has focussed mainly on their senior management roles, as opposed to their entire workforce.
Diversity quotas and charters shouldn’t be the benchmark in signalling anti-racism, they should be the bare minimum. If banks are as committed as they say they are to combating anti-racism & their colonial past, then they must do better at not only being transparent about their shortcomings but also at setting clear and achievable aims, with inclusion and care at the centre.
The BBC’s pledge to invest £100m of its TV budget over a three-year period to produce "diverse and inclusive content" was more than welcome in a media environment, heavily criticised for its lack of diversity and representation.
This move by the BBC is a step in the right direction towards substantive change, and shows, (in part) that they are willing to take on board criticism, and actively reflect on their oversights in a meaningful way, by taking financial action, and restructuring sections of their institution.
However, it’s imperative we remain critical, because while on a superficial level the BBC may in spirit seem devoted to anti-racist praxis, the broadcasting service has made it quite clear it doesn’t want to be affiliated with anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matter. In a report from the Telegraph, a source from the BBC can be quoted saying “The BBC cannot be seen to support any kind of cause over another, and Black Lives Matter is certainly a campaign.”.
The source continues “Our presenters and guests can discuss Black Lives Matter, and we’ve reported on it in depth. We’re not impartial about racism… But wearing badges on screen - just as with any other campaign - would be a step too far.”.
This distancing, and labelling of BLM as a ‘campaign’, reduces anti-racist movements in this country to a political choice, rather than a fundamental human rights imperative. Implementing economic aid isn’t enough if your brand chooses to sanitise itself of affiliations to organisations it deems as ‘campaigns’. Anti-racism begins with coalition and solidarity, but it doesn’t end with ‘investments’ and ‘budgets’.
Another worrying factor in this analysis of the BBC’s anti-racist efforts since last summer comes from their coverage of COVID 19.
Thanks to data collected and shared by advocacy group End the Virus of Racism, it is estimated that there has been an almost 300 per cent increase in hate crimes towards people of East and Southeast Asian heritage since the start of the pandemic. This Anti-Asian racism, predicated on the belief that ‘Asian looking’ people are more likely to be carriers of the Coronavirus has its roots in the information disseminated by the UK media. A petition, started by six women of ESEA (East/South East Asian) heritage, showed that33 per cent of the images used to report on Covid-19 in the UK featured Asian people, with specific examples relating directly to the BBC.
For example, it was reported that the BBC:
Depicted imagery of an East/South East Asian woman and two people in an Asian supermarket when talking about coronavirus and wearing masks in shops.
Depicted two East/South East Asian people in Coronavirus related article in Blackburn. Despite there only being 721 Chinese people out of 148,942 Blackburn’s population. That’s 0.48%.
From these findings, it is clear that the BBC, as well as other media outlets in this country, are responsible for circulating harmful stereotypes about people of colour, that have indirectly caused them harm and violence in real life. While I recognise it may seem unfair to signal out the BBC, we must not shy away from holding these businesses accountable in their complicity and contribution to racism, especially considering the BBC’s stance of ‘impartiality’.
The BBC has made some strides in implementing changes that could lead to a more equal and anti-racist environment, but they have also played a part in solidifying racist stereotypes about people of colour (specifically those of ESEA descent). Both of these things can be true, and it’s important we are cognisant of this moving forward. While the BBC has shown in some capacity it is ready for structural change, how far can a corporation like this really go with their anti-racist and diversity policies, if they themselves reinforce the same prejudice they purport to want to fight against?
In addition to the PSA’s posted on the brand’s social media accounts denouncing racism, Nike also made a pledge to commit $40 million over the next four years to support the Black community in the U.S. on behalf of the NIKE, Jordan and Converse brands collectively in addition to another $100 million on behalf of the Jordan and Air Jordan brands. Also, more recently, following the rising violence committed against Asian Americans, Nike donated $500,000 to 20 non-profits that help advance Asian American, Middle East and Pacific Islander communities. These, and other charity orientated programmes, showcase Nike’s ability to financially back incentives and programmes that could go a long way in making a long-term impact.
However, if we divert our attention to the Global South for a moment, a different side of NIKE starts to emerge. While NIKE may be Fair Labor Association (FLA) Workplace Code of Conduct certified they still haven’t paid their garment workers overseas their full wages during the pandemic, resulting in many losing their jobs without adequate financial compensation. A report from Clean Clothes Campaign calculated that just for the first three months of the pandemic garment workers in global supply chains are owed between 3.2-5.8 billion USD in unpaid wages, legally owed bonuses, and compensation. While NIKE isn’t the only clothing retailer responsible for this gross inaction, they still need to be held responsible, particularly if we are to take their anti-racist policies seriously. Black and Asian lives matter on a global scale, not just on American and western soil, companies like Nike need to remember this if they truly wish to help aid in social justice.
In conclusion, the corporate world must not become complacent with diversity quotas or throwing money at racism, in hopes it will go away. Economic redistribution is key in addressing the inequalities that racism has entrenched but it’s not the one and only step. True anti-racism requires a radical restructuring and stance I fear these businesses and brands are not yet ready to make for fear of their public perception. As time moves on, perhaps we will see the corporate world take more initiative on matters of racism, until then, they still have a long way to go.
 2018 Edelman Earned Brand Global Report https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2018-10/2018_Edelman_Earned_Brand_Global_Report.pdf  Black Lives Matter: The organisations we’re supporting https://www.starlingbank.com/blog/black-lives-matter-the-organisations-we-are-supporting/  After pledging disclosure, many UK banks still silent on race diversity data https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-banks-racism-insight-idUSKBN2A30L3  Ibid  BBC commits £100m to increasing diversity on TV https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-53135022  Exclusive: BBC rules that staff should not wear Black Lives Matter badges on air https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/07/01/bbc-tells-staff-not-wear-black-lives-matters-badges-on-air/  End The Virus of Racism, Frequently Asked Questions https://www.endthevirusofracism.com/faqs  Stop depicting East & South East Asians in Coronavirus related media https://www.change.org/p/stop-depicting-east-south-east-asians-in-coronavirus-related-media  Ibid  NIKE, Inc. Statement on Commitment to the Black Community https://news.nike.com/news/nike-commitment-to-black-community  UNTIL WE ALL WIN COMMUNITY INVESTMENT PROGRAM https://purpose.nike.com/until-we-all-win-community-investment  Garment workers in H&M, Primark, and Nike’s supply chains need their full wages during a pandemic https://cleanclothes.org/news/2020/garment-workers-in-hm-primark-and-nikes-supply-chains-need-their-full-wages-during-a-pandemic