The Complexity of Humans

Picture: Jasmin Merdan / Getty Images

This summer, I got much more than I bargained for. I believed that I would primarily learn about the relationship of corporations to social change and the ecosystem of businesses, nonprofits, and government. But the trends I saw in my work with BSR and thought-provoking discussions with my Pathways of Change cohort led me to understand a bit more about the world not just through the lens of corporations, but through the nature of the humans who run them.

Before my internship with BSR began, I wanted to be open to seeing corporations as something other than entities that worked against the noble efforts of nonprofits, but I wasn’t convinced that I’d see much that would change my negative initial impressions of corporations. A lot of ideas that I was exposed to through my work with BSR substantiated these impressions, but a lot of experiences I had this summer convinced me that corporations were not 100% evil.

Human beings are composites—composites of good, evil, selfishness, altruism, pain, joy, high points, low points, and so much more. We are complex creatures that are not 100% good, but not yet 100% evil. Humans are not perfect, but it does not mean that we are inherently bad and cannot affect positive change in society.

And like the humans that compose corporations, corporations are quite complex composites of conflicting traits and interests as well. Corporations are…human. But not like that.

There are corporations out there that demonstrate human traits such as kindness by not only helping society through their primary products/services, but by giving back through means outside of their primary operations.

I began to see corporations in a slightly better light during my time with BSR when I learned that corporations that commit to furthering societal good through their company in addition to turning a profit existed. Through my research with Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking (GBCAT) for BSR, I realized that these corporations, called B Corporations or B Corps, do incredible work on local, national, and international levels. Some famous examples include Ben & Jerrys, Danone, and Patagonia.

For example, the subject of a case study I worked on for GBCAT was a B Corp that crafts environmentally friendly jeans, employs women who have experienced exploitation, and offers training opportunities to those women as well. Another case study I worked on detailed a B Corp that trains over 1,100 disadvantaged youth in Vietnam each year in a variety of courses such as marketing and sales, housekeeping, graphic design, cooking, web coding, and more. They even have partnerships with nearby 5-star hotels so that trainees can learn in a realistic environment.

Though there are some corporations out there doing extraordinarily upstanding work, it is easier to lump all corporations together and amplify the negative traits of the world’s largest corporations rather than acknowledge the positive impacts of corporations, especially the smaller ones, on society. However, many corporations certainly give us reason to give them flak as well.

The intense spotlight on the specific, harmful activities of corporations can be productive for remediating those harms. However, it can also be detrimental by creating many social impact advocates who are averse to working alongside corporations for good. I used to be a member of the latter and throughout the course of this summer, I found it difficult to move from that perspective and to allow the positive traits of corporations to coexist in my mind alongside the knowledge of the negative effects that corporations have on society.

While I highly laud the work of B Corporations, it is quite disheartening to know that a specification had to be specially created for corporations that wanted to commit to furthering social good. But it isn’t necessarily a secret that many corporations, and even some NGOs and governments, have a tendency to develop and deepen some of the most nefarious human traits: greed and selfishness.

A corporation’s primary objective is to generate profit, and the amount of money that anyone—not just a corporation—possesses has a positive correlation with power. And with that power comes great responsibility. Corporate money has the power to influence the government and NGOs perhaps more than these two entities influence corporations. Given this extraordinary amount of leverage for positive change, it is extremely disappointing to see corporations engage in performative activism and not enact actionable reform that they are certainly capable of.

I first caught a glimpse of the hypocrisy of corporations when I conducted research on the human rights policies that some corporations write and refresh every few years but rarely actually act upon. It became clear very quickly that even the “advanced” corporations that take the time and effort to write these policies pretend to not understand the definition of “remediation”.

I saw this same thread of hypocrisy woven through the carefully crafted statements supporting the Black Lives Matter movement that made vague promises to “do better” but didn’t explain how exactly they were going to get there.

When I interviewed Aditi Mohapatra, the Managing Director of Women’s Empowerment at BSR, I learned that corporations are enthusiastic about the idea of diversity but not surprisingly hesitant when it comes time to actually make space in positions of power for people from marginalized groups.

Sustainability and inclusivity are the future. But unfortunately, switching to more sustainable and inclusive practices may not have the immediate payoffs that corporations so desperately crave. Corporations that don’t make a genuine effort to reform their practices will be left behind by more advanced competitors and will realize too late that their empty promises will likely lead to empty pockets in the long haul.

Hypocrisy will come back to bite the bottom line of corporations. It’s just a matter of when.

To add to the mess, corporations also push the responsibility for their unethical practices onto consumers and also feed into the idea that NGOs need to hold them accountable instead of corporations actually owning up to their own actions in the first place. Somehow, we’ve created a society in which the difficult job of enforcing accountability, responsibility, and remediation is being tossed to those who didn’t commit the harms or contribute to them in any way.

However, just like corporations, the government and consumers are also guilty of hypocrisy.

Through the insightful discussions that I had with my Kenan Pathways of Change cohort, I’ve begun to understand that the government has pushed the responsibility of taking care of our society’s most vulnerable citizens onto NGOs. The government has also been a large part in delegating the delightful burden of holding billion, even trillion-dollar corporations accountable to NGOs as well.

But to resurface from my extraordinarily uplifting deep dive into the problems with corporations and society in general, I realized during my internship that good people can work for predominantly “evil” corporations. I can attest to the idea that there are advocates for social change within corporations who are hard at work and are trying their best to use their positions, whether in the social responsibility department or in another job function, to promote social good.

When imperfect human traits are scaled up to a massive corporate level, we may see more negative human traits displayed than we’d like to admit we have ourselves. However, it does not do us any good to refuse to work alongside these entities, each with our own approaches and perspectives, towards a collective goal of bettering society.

On a human level, I’ve learned that it is easy—but wrong—to shut someone down, to refuse to listen to them, to just dig your heels into your own beliefs. It is so much harder to listen without judgement, without explosive emotions, but with a true desire to understand someone who disagrees with you. I should know—my previous blanket judgement of corporations was based off of what I wanted to see, not off of the entire picture of what was actually there.

I couldn’t forgive corporations for their faults and I couldn’t see the efforts and impacts of the ones that were actually doing good.

I learned a critical lesson this summer: the people whose viewpoints we do not agree with the most are the people that we need to talk to the most (hint: it’s also an election year). More likely than not, they have a reason for believing in what they believe, just as we have our own personal experiences and reasons for holding our own beliefs. Understanding someone’s perspective, background, needs, and wants is greatly helpful in arriving at some sort of common ground that will help opposing sides progress on an issue. And if both parties agree to disagree, then at least you’ve agreed on that.

And these exact same lessons can be applied to corporations.

There is tremendous value in recognizing that each stakeholder in society has a unique role to play in our world and along with that, distinct strengths, that it brings to furthering social progress. After all, to be a bit cynical, I currently believe that the world runs on reciprocity: people giving others what others want in order to receive something they want in return. If this is truly the way that the world works, then we have to be realistic in order to create actionable and tangible steps to create a better world.

The puzzle pieces of a better world are not formed solely by NGOs, organizations such as BSR, or other entities that society typically brands as “good”. NGOs and governments may hold a few pieces of the puzzle, but corporations hold a larger number of pieces than we care to admit. We need the cooperation of corporations, governments, NGOs, and individuals alike to achieve something we all want: a reality, not just a picture, of a better world.

Leadership Profile: Aditi Mohapatra, Managing Director of Women’s Empowerment at BSR

Aditi Mohapatra is the Managing Director at BSR for Women’s Empowerment and is helping to lead BSR’s Diversity and Inclusion initiatives. Aditi works with BSR members across sectors to help them improve and advance their sustainability strategies. She leads BSR’s global portfolio of work on women’s empowerment across consulting, collaboration, and research.

Aditi joined BSR after several years at Calvert Investment Management, a leading sustainable and responsible investment firm. There, she led strategic planning for Calvert’s executive committee, and held various roles within the sustainability research team. Her portfolio included companies in the information and communications technology sector, and she led corporate engagements on the subjects of gender corporate governance and gender equality, including the advancement of the Calvert Women’s Principles.

Aditi holds an M.B.A. in Finance from George Washington University, and a B.S. in International Economics from the University of Florida.

As a first-generation Indian-American, Aditi Mohapatra grew up being highly conscious of the status of women in Indian culture and society. Her mother and role model, had an enormous influence on her; in a family of four sisters with college degrees, her mother was the only one to move to the United States, obtain a Master’s degree, and work professionally. To Aditi, her mother lived out the idea that women can contribute to society through their careers and their families without making tradeoffs.

While she was in graduate school pursuing an M.B.A. with a focus in finance, she continued to notice gendered differences in the way women acted and men were treated. In her experience, women often did not ask for a raise or negotiate for salaries, and more specifically, women of color were commonly overlooked for opportunities. Aditi wanted to ensure that she didn’t compound the stereotype of a working woman, rather, she wanted to change it. In order to do so, she made note to intentionally do the exact opposite of what the stereotypical working woman was expected to do (or not to do).

Aditi was first introduced to the ESG investing space when she attended a career panel in graduate school. She saw ESG investing as a very savvy way to combine her skill set in financial analysis with her passion for social change and later landed a position at Calvert Investment Management, which enabled her to pursue projects in technology, women’s empowerment, and sustainability.

Her experience at Calvert Investment Management set her up for her initial role at BSR in the tech field and her current role in women’s empowerment. Her transition from her tech role to women’s empowerment at BSR was driven by her desire to help activate businesses in creating a more equal society in terms of resources and economic empowerment. In her experience, she found that the tech sector focuses on the industry’s role in creating broad change in many issue areas, whereas her work with women’s empowerment enables her to focus on a specific set of outcomes that all businesses can work towards.

When asked what she sees as the greatest barrier to women’s empowerment, Aditi responded candidly and without hesitation: “Power.” The power structure is such that men dominate everything—every sector, everything across the board. True equity requires a shift in power, and power is something that is extraordinarily difficult to surrender.

Only so many positions of leadership exist, and today in 2020, merely 37 women hold the title of CEO out of the Fortune 500 companies—an extremely low number, but a record high. Because existing power structures are so difficult to break into, entrepreneurship is becoming increasingly popular for women.

To address these power differentials, Aditi has seen that corporations call for more board diversity. The existing board is quick to welcome qualified women and minorities and the word “qualified” is heavily emphasized. However, in reality, unqualified white men on executive boards has really never been a problem.

Women, especially women of color, face an additional threshold when it comes to advancing their careers. Though it seems as if women in the US are advancing as a whole, the data shows that women of color are not included equally in this advancement and are often left behind.

None of the 37 female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are Black or Latina.

There’s a sense that the challenges that women face are behind us, but the gender disparity when it comes to wages, leadership, and experience of harassment show how far away society is from a place that actually values the contributions of women. A recent example is the #metoo movement—a reckoning that drew society’s attention to the need for more conversation and transparency. When it comes to gender disparities, society needs more discussions about the data (especially when it comes to pay) and the data that is not collected or is not released publicly.

Aditi is a champion of these conversations, of bringing more awareness to women’s rights. She firmly believes that more awareness and consciousness of an issue leads to more opportunity to act on the issue. Society is so, so far behind—much more so than we think, and awareness of the facts, existing data, and data that is not yet collected or not yet released on gender disparities, is a step towards change.

Though companies state their commitment to advancing women’s rights and “act” on their statements by contributing towards philanthropic women’s rights causes (contributions that aren’t reflected in workplaces) and signing non-enforceable commitments, no effective and significant advancement of women’s rights has occurred within corporations.

In 2017, the UK mandated that any organization with 250+ employees must report their gender pay gap, but most companies explain the disparities away. According to Aditi, systemic barriers such as gender norms and stereotypes, assets, and discriminatory laws are areas that need to be addressed if change is to truly take place.

However, Aditi names The Unstereotype Alliance and The UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment as examples of a handful of initiatives that have been effective in promoting tangible change.

Media and advertising has enormous influence in dictating gender roles, and The Unstereotype Alliance works as a “thought and action platform that seeks to eradicate harmful gender-based stereotypes” in these spaces. The UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment has also been effective in advancing women’s rights by making “action-oriented recommendations on how to improve economic outcomes for women in the context of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, promoting women’s leadership in driving economic growth, and galvanizing political will power.”

Many students want to break down systemic barriers to help advance sustainability and rights in their careers and everyday lives. When asked what advice she would give to these students, Aditi noted the numerous ways to contribute to societal change through roles in companies, advocacy organizations, the public sector, investing, and more that reside in the ecosystem of nonprofits, business, and government.

She emphasizes the enormous value in obtaining experience through the lens and perspectives of each stakeholder and understanding their role in creating change in the ecosystem. Aditi explained that understanding the motivations, roles, and ways that each stakeholder can be most effective will be invaluable as this intersection requires collaboration and working alongside so many other actors. It takes the entire ecosystem to propel movements forward.

Many spaces require drastic advancements, and the women’s empowerment space is certainly one of those. However, I feel empowered to know that there are inspiring and powerful women like Aditi at the forefront of the women’s rights movement today. I hope more women are inspired to take after her strength and courage, to stand up to suppressive social norms and barriers that society has created, and to listen to each other—now more than ever—to work together towards building a better world for all.

The Similarities between Squirrels and Corporations

Wrangling frequently with the topic of lawless corporations during this internship and their often  nonchalant attitude towards human rights reminds me of my dear friends back on campus: the Duke squirrels. I have pretty low expectations for these squirrels–I see them hurl themselves at blinding speeds around tree trunks in a bid to catch their friends, and on numerous occasions they startle me when they erupt from trash cans while nibbling on scraps of overpriced food.

Once, when I was walking from class, a squirrel barreled across my right toes, and dove into some nearby shrubbery. The audacity. These squirrels don’t play by the rules and frankly, they don’t care about the consequences because nobody really has the ability to discipline them

This past week, I researched the strength of human rights work of various corporations. I’ve found myself silently praising corporations that have created a Human Rights policy. I felt a rush of giddiness when I would “command f” the words “human rights” in one of their Annual Sustainability Reports and see that once result came up in the 40 page report.

Upon reflecting, I’m curious as to why I praise corporations for making a passing mention of their “awareness” of human rights and why astronomically low expectations for companies and human rights are normalized in society.

It is saddening, but not that surprising, to realize that corporations address human rights as something more voluntary and more performative than it should be. It seems as if most corporations hesitate to make human rights a priority, and even more don’t have human rights on the docket at all.

Some corporations repeatedly harm the environment, local communities, and the rights of laborers despite the voices of numerous nonprofits calling for accountability. The physical, mental, and emotional detachment from those that corporations harm enables corporations and consumers alike to value the end products of a brutal system over the human rights that were violated in the process of its creation.

In an ideal world, all human rights abuses would be strictly dealt with and respecting human rights would be non-negotiable. However, it’s pretty transparent that this world runs on money and it’s no secret that corporations tend to have a lot more of that than nonprofits do—but perhaps that is just something that is inherent to the core purpose of each entity.

Corporations are made to compete and to dominate the market and collaborating with competitors so that everyone can “win” isn’t necessarily a popular objective. But while some nonprofits may operate like corporations, what I would hope is their ultimate achievement is society progressing past the need for the organization because nonprofit has achieved its mission.

However, even without a clear and labeled hierarchy of power, we know which actors wield the most influence within the ecosystem of businesses, governments, and nonprofits. And it’s no surprise that this often translates into the voices of the marginalized falling upon the voluntarily deaf ears of corporations.

Despite often not being taken seriously by corporations, external actors such as governments and nonprofits are in a position where they are less dependent on corporations than a corporation’s own employees. This detached relationship seems to create a healthier environment for corporate accountability to take place because these external actors may not suffer the same backlash that employees might face for speaking out. However, the power within a corporation is blatantly spelled out and adds a layer of a potentially dangerous power dynamic between upper management and on-the-ground laborers.

Upper management ultimately has direct control of the jobs of the workers and has the choice of whether or not they want to listen to the union—that is, if the formation of a union is even permitted by the corporation. This power dynamic can promote a caustic environment in which employees may have to grapple with which they value more: minimizing the possibility of losing their job or airing a grievance that draws attention to a critical issue that they/their fellow co-workers may be facing.

The risks for a larger disconnect between upper management and laborers are heightened particularly in instances where production is outsourced to a foreign country with loose enforcement of labor laws. Corporations that work with thousands of suppliers (Walmart works with more than 100,000!) also face enormous challenges in ensuring transparency in each and every level of their global supply chains and that their suppliers actually act according to the overarching corporation’s supplier code of conduct.

The Human Rights Team at BSR utilizes the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights as well as the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a foundation to guide their work. However, there is no legal enforcement of these principles or notable incentives and policies to motivate corporations to create even a basic human rights policy.

While the UDHR is incorporated into the constitution/legal framework of some countries, that—coupled with the idea that respecting human rights is the moral thing to do—is not enough for a company to actively examine how they are approaching the topic of human rights, if at all.

Most corporations need incentives, whether profit, image, or policy-driven, in order to spur them to incorporate human rights into their company’s policy and actions. They want to be seen as more favorable to consumers, more ethically driven than their competitors, and want their ethical actions to generate more profit in the long run. The bottom line is never fully out of the picture.

Perhaps to jump-start short term change, a policy incentive such as the government subsidizing costs for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) for basic HR due diligence and maybe a prestigious title doled out for ethical companies to plaster on their annual reports would spur companies to lead the charge for the prioritization of human rights.

On the other hand, hefty consequences such as substantial fines or a public shaming list released by the government could potentially humble companies into ensuring that basic rights violations are not being perpetuated by their practices. Positive and negative short term motivators could potentially lead to a corporate culture in which it would be unacceptable to not actively engage with human rights. I can’t believe I have to say that.

Policies that actively engage with other actors in the ecosystem such as nonprofits also have the potential to lift the work and voices of nonprofits up. Further benefits for nonprofits such as increased funding might help to lessen the power gap between nonprofits and corporations.

While nonprofits play an essential part in vocalizing the need for corporations to acknowledge and act upon their duty to society, serious communication between businesses and governments is needed in order to ensure that corporations are actually being held accountable.

Guidelines need to be utilized, incentives need to be provided, and policies need to be implemented and enforced. Society should not hold massive, trillion dollar corporations to the same, low level of accountability that we have for mischievous campus squirrels. But with the collaborative work of nonprofit organizations like BSR with some of the largest corporations in the world, society is slowly moving in the right direction. Let’s all work together to make it move just a bit faster.

Treating the Source and Not Merely the Symptoms

As I’m sitting in my childhood bedroom for the third month straight, I’ve found that reminiscing on my experiences with Duke Engage in Summer 2019 makes me quite happy and makes me feel less alone. Wonderful memories that I made last summer alongside my newfound friends in my cohort and at the incredible mental health nonprofits I interned with flood back in welcome waves. However, one memory in particularly quite literally floods back.

One sunny June afternoon at my internship with Threshold Clubhouse, a local mental health nonprofit in Durham, NC, (less than a 10-minute drive away from Duke!) the toilets in both the men’s and women’s bathrooms gushed out gallons upon gallons of water for hours.

The clubhouse descended into a state of chaos when the toilets first started exploding water and people rushed to throw rags and brown paper towels on top of the drenched bathroom floors. A few brave staff members went in to attempt to solve the problem, but it wasn’t until backup arrived a few hours later that the flooding was finally controlled.

This summer, alongside my Pathways of Change cohort, I realized that nonprofits such as Threshold address the symptoms of a much deeper problem caused by the government’s abandonment of responsibilities to its most vulnerable citizens. In a way, the role of nonprofits mirrors the act of attempting to dry a flooded bathroom floor while torrents of water are still bursting forth from nearby toilets.

Support of nonprofits is highly needed, particularly for local nonprofits that cater to smaller populations who are often overlooked otherwise. However, reform of the entire system should not be overlooked as the culture of addressing symptoms of severe societal issues as a way to deflect from actually addressing their sources is highly problematic. The paper towels are going to run out soon, and the problem is still going to persist.

The government has not only abandoned its most vulnerable citizens, but has been complicit in allowing businesses to avoid their social responsibilities to society. The recent controversy surrounding insincere statements from corporations on the topic of Black Lives Matter merely only scratches the surface of meager attempts by corporations to address symptoms of a much larger problem that many of them have helped to create and grow.

The inaction and increasingly polarized nature of the government enables corporations to violate the human rights of not only people in the US, but people in developing nations as well. Corporations are rarely held accountable when they harm people in vulnerable communities, rarely prioritize people who aren’t stakeholders, and perpetuate and worsen the state of inequality, racism, injustice, the environment, and more. We have created a questionable system in which the job of holding these gargantuan corporations accountable is somehow left to nonprofits.

Perhaps one of the reasons as to why the government and corporations enact very little tangible and effective action to uplift the most vulnerable in society is because the most of the people running the government and corporations are not representative of the US population (although we are slowly getting there) and their net worth’s are oftentimes not representative of the average US household. This disconnect reminds me of the mentally-detached relationship of consumers who actively purchase from unethical brands and the laborers whose human rights are violated because of the unethical brands.

But even if someone doesn’t have the experience of being in a vulnerable position, it doesn’t mean that they can’t try to understand and perhaps eventually come to understand the positions and perspectives of the vulnerable. However, what saddens me is the idea that though someone without certain experiences with a problem can believe that the problem harms their fellow human beings, it doesn’t mean that they care. It doesn’t mean that something is going to change for the better.

But the want to even see and understand a situation is the first step to eventual change, and I’ve found that the people who I worked with at Threshold Clubhouse and Waddington Street Centre last summer and the wonderful people of BSR are people who have not only wanted to understand the situations of the most vulnerable of society, but have cared enough to dedicate their careers to helping our world heal.

The government and corporations need to deeply consider how they are failing the most vulnerable populations of society and what they can do to not only rectify the problem, but what they can effectively implement in order to uplift the marginalized. But to even get started, they need to have the sincere want to even understand what they can be doing better.

I hope that society will eventually evolve to a point where people who live with incessantly flooding toilets will be heard, and those that hear them but may not see the toilets themselves will believe them, will care, and will take action. And even beyond that, I hope that people who have lived the consequences of malfunctioning toilets are empowered and elevated so that our government and our corporations are actually representative of our population and their stories, struggles, and triumphs.

Because if not, sooner or later, we’ll all be underwater.

Mean it.

Black lives matters painting

In high school, my mom often called to tell me to put the salmon in the oven before she got home. I happily agreed while my eyes were glued to some irrelevant Netflix show and stated that I’d totally, definitely, 100%, do it right away.

It wasn’t until 45 minutes later, when I sensed the rumbling of the garage door, that I’d immediately bolt to the oven to shove the salmon in, only to remember that I never preheated the oven in the first place.

Thankfully, I’ve matured a bit in the years since high school, and I’ve felt enough of my mother’s rightful wrath to understand the importance of making a statement or promise, and actually following through with action.

2020 is one chaotic year, and many people and organizations have had many things to say about this frenzied time  (to say the least). Though COVID-19 just recently emerged in the past few months, the uproar over the brutal killing of George Floyd, along with the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and so many more people at the hands of racist police officers has highlighted the systemic suppression of blacks and other BIPOC that has been ingrained in our nation’s history since its founding.

Blatant and systemic racism has been allowed and encouraged non-BIPOC to violate an innumerable amount of human rights belonging to black and brown bodies since 1619. Though slavery was legally abolished in 1865, the legacy of slavery is still very much with us today, 401 years after the first slaves arrived in America.

George Floyd was not the first black human being to die at the hands of racist and violent white and non-BIPOC police officers. Horrifically, the rate at which police kill black Americans is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans. We have been, and currently are, in an undeniable human rights crisis. And if structural change is not soon implemented or even begun, our society will never escape this oppressive cycle.

In the present, non-BIPOC individuals, communities, and companies are scrambling to find an appropriate response to this human rights crisis that will preserve their image, absolve them of seeming racist or complicit, and for companies particularly, appease their target consumers and have a better response than their competition.

Especially for corporations, each carefully crafted sentence of a statement, each “million dollar” donation made, each “decisive” action vowed to be taken, is meticulously cultivated with the goal of avoiding the incitement of widespread brand damage within the US and internationally.

Many company statements promise change and promise consumers that they will do X, Y, and Z, and all the letters that come before those in order to combat racism. However, this is certainly not the first-time corporations have crafted statements and promised action. Corporate promises have the potential to be quite empty and ephemeral, with no tangible long-term action taken or even seriously planned in the first place.

I was fascinated to connect how the frenzy for companies to put forth progressive statements in a bid to demonstrate their solidarity so closely paralleled the human rights statements that major banks have released in the past.

This week, during my research into how financial institutions are addressing the topic of human rights, I found that many corporations have put forth their own human rights policies, some of which seem quite comprehensive. However, it soon became evident that merely putting forth a human rights policy, no matter how seemingly extensive, is in actuality a very surface-level attempt to address human rights issues.

According to a 2019 report by BankTrack, though over 35 of the 50 largest private sector commercial banks globally had a high-level human rights policy statement in place, “only four banks were found to give any indication that they assess whether they caused or contributed to an adverse human rights impact, and none describe a process for making such an assessment.”

A statement, no matter how well thought through or crafted, does not guarantee that a corporation is actually going to implement actionable, structural change within the corporation, advocate for national policy change, or do anything truly disruptive in the name of righteous reform. Corporations, especially the trillion-dollar corporations, need to open their purses and put their money where their mouth is.

Though a $10 million donation from a nearly trillion-dollar company to groups fighting racial inequality may seem like a lot of money, $10 million is only a pitiful 0.001% of $1 trillion. It doesn’t seem like it would kill corporations too much to donate a couple more million dollars to fight racism, which is a systemic problem that has killed, is killing, and will kill BIPOC if significant steps to combat it are not taken.

The division of wealth in society is widening and is not only punctuated by the juxtaposition between the valuation of corporations and nonprofits run by activists, but is also highly reflected between races. By “one estimate, the typical white family has wealth of $171,000, which is nearly ten times greater than the $17,150 for an average black family” (Market Watch).

The racist structure of our system is certainly not going to change overnight, as racism is deeply embedded in our country’s policies, history, and has stifled the potential of our country by denying opportunities and suppressing black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) either purposefully or unknowingly, which both yield negative consequences.

However, corporations have the levers to expedite structural change through mechanisms such as significant donations and persistent lobbying efforts. They must also fundamentally reconsider what their recruitment processes look like, how they might continue discussions and transparency to invoke racial change, how they can aid non-BIPOC employees in obtaining resources to further their personal racial education, how much funding is diverted to the Diversity and Inclusion department of their company, the make-up of their executive leaders in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and more.

Human rights violations are often thought of as having horrifying visuals such as a child laboring away in a sweatshop in a far-away country without enough pay. However, human rights violations can also look as innocuous as a silent and learned racist bias within a recruiter’s mind during a search to fill internship positions or jobs.

Perhaps instead of merely adding their hollow promises to the crowded digital media sphere, corporations should also remember to ceaselessly listen to BIPOC and continually advocate to dismantle the structural barriers created as a result of racism. Our world has fed off of unjust systems that have suppressed black and brown bodies for far, far too long and substantial change is long overdue.

The garage door is rumbling, and corporations can play a large role in ensuring that dinner is on the table tonight. Luckily for them, the salmon has already been marinated and the oven has been preheated by the efforts of today’s activists and those who have advocated for racial justice long before them. The trillion-dollar question is, will corporations actually put the salmon in the oven? Or will they merely say that they will?

All I know is that if dinner isn’t on the table soon, there will be much larger issues to deal with than my rightfully hangry mother.

The Burden of Consumers

A crowded escalatorFor me, the word “hypocrisy” is closely related to the word “broccoli.” When I was younger, I’d push those demonic little florets around my plate and wincingly gulp them down at the end of every meal. If I was lucky, I’d successfully sneak my broccoli into a napkin and surreptitiously chuck it out after dinner (I don’t think my sense of morality started developing until I was probably seven years old).

One evening during dinner, my dad noticed that I hadn’t touched the broccoli on my plate and chided me for not finishing my food. However, he went to the living room after finishing dinner, and I realized that a noticeable amount of broccoli still remained on his plate.

My five-year-old brain buzzed with excitement–his behavior reinforced the opposite of what he told me to do! A true scandal. I abandoned the florets on my plate and happily went to play in the living room, feeling justified in my actions.

As I’ve grown up, it has become clear to me that hypocrisy is often unnoticed and sometimes even normalized by society. And after delving into the world of supply chains this week at BSR, I noticed that like my father in the hypocritical broccoli incident of 2005, consumers tell companies to change their policies and practices, but then their actions reinforce the status quo.

During the webinars I attended this week, it was reiterated that the COVID-19 crisis has exposed the lack of resiliency of many major supply chains, particularly in the garment industry. Many supply chain experts voiced their belief that this crisis was an opportunity for corporations to bolster the resiliency of their supply chains by increasing transparency and conducting rigorous due diligence. Their hope was that vulnerable migrant workers at the bottom tier of the supply chain would actually be afforded social protection in the future and would be spared from shouldering the most devastating effects of a company’s plummet in profit like they do now.

But as much as we dream of having a perfect world in which everyone does the right thing and makes the wellbeing of others a top priority, at the end of the day, a for-profit entity exists, well, for profit. If outsourcing labor to other countries with loose enforcement of labor laws helps a company to cut costs, retain loyal customers, and keep prices low and profits high, then a company is going to keep doing just that.

While I do believe that this pandemic is an opportunity for companies to rethink their supply chains and make better decisions that favor laborers, the system is built so that even after the pandemic “ends”, companies and consumers–the people who drive profit for the company–must both willingly change their behavior permanently in order for tangible change to be cemented.

It may be easy for consumers to say they oppose violations of human rights and call on companies to change their policies and procedures, but the actions of most consumers often don’t line up with their words as they sometimes even drive the revenue stream for the very corporations they supposedly oppose.

Consumers tell corporations to finish their broccoli, but don’t do it themselves. In fact, consumers may go a step further and offer corporations a family size bag of chips, much to the chagrin of their health-conscious mother (this may or may not be a regular occurrence in my household).

However, the hypocrisy of many consumers is understandable and relatable. There is often an entanglement of tradeoffs that consumers must make, and if it’s possible to choose the option that will benefit their own families, wallets, and happiness, they’ll choose it.

Consumers often lack information about company and supplier practices while making their purchases, which then makes them unknowingly complicit in the actions of unethical suppliers. And the distance, physically and emotionally, that consumers have from laborers in foreign countries certainly doesn’t help the cause.

After all, the intention behind walking up to the cash register and purchasing fashionable pants that fit you well and are reasonably priced isn’t exactly the same as the intention behind forcing a migrant laborer to work overtime in dangerous conditions with little to no pay.

Some suppliers intentionally implement practices that harm laborers and maximize profit. But the majority of consumers, if not all, do not shop with the intent of perpetuating human rights violations. It’s highly troublesome that consumers bear the difficult burden of bridging the mental and emotional divide between their actions and the unseen consequences in order to realize the weight of their actions and significantly alter their behavior.

Organizations like BSR are pushing for corporations to do their part in reforming their ways, but the world is such that it isn’t enough for only companies to act. Consumers must act as well. Like it or not, know it or not, we all have played some part in the harms brought about by companies. But collectively, we all have the power to enforce change.

So, let’s all try our best to set an example by finishing our broccoli and ensuring that corporations finish theirs too.