Befriend thy ‘enemy’ or keep thy distance

When I was younger, my parents had two rules about the clothes I wore. One – I could choose one item from the top two drawers where shirts were kept, and one item from the lower two drawers where bottoms were kept—no more, no less. (Dresses were in the closet as an alternative.)

The second rule was that the clothes “couldn’t have words on them.” In addition to not loving the implications of “cutie” slogans on children’s clothing, my mom didn’t want my sisters or me to be “walking advertisements” for any brand or company.

Thanks to this third guidance, I learned to equate association with support, and even endorsement—a valuable but not absolute lesson. However, as I dug into some of BSR’s ideologies and policies, I found a context to challenge this position.

During one of my first “onboarding” Zooms with a manager at BSR, I learned that employees may “opt out” of working on certain projects. The culture at BSR (which I’ve found very impressive) allows employees to share that they are uncomfortable working with a certain company, brand, or industry, and that’s that. They won’t be assigned to an affiliated project.

Not to say I believe this policy was implemented lightly—on the contrary—but it deserves some thought. In truth, when I was first told about the policy, I didn’t think much of it. Thankfully, the manager who shared it did the initial bit of thinking for me.

She shared that BSR’s portfolio includes companies like those in the defense, big soda, and tobacco industries—industries that face a lot of pushback and controversy.

She went on to candidly share the industry that she chooses not to work with and explained her reasoning. However, she encouraged me to ask the tough question: “Does more good come from working with your enemies  in hopes of influencing their actions and writing their policies, or is it better to stand against them in opposition?”

A cat and a dog sit at a table conducting businessAs I write this, I see a swirl of contexts where my answers to this question are very different. Therefore, I want to be clear that I’m only approaching this question from BSR’s context. That is the “corporate-responsibility-organizations working with businesses” frame.

I’ll spoil my own ending and admit that I still don’t have a definite stance. Protest can be powerful, but customers may wield more protest power than professionals who work in the corporate responsibility space. Further, the ability to divest and protest often comes from a privileged position—one that BSR wields well, but towards which it has a responsibility.

With that, I’d say by the end of last week I was still 50

I thought “hmmm well…if you have the opportunity to influence big corporations from the inside through a position like one at BSR you absolutely should! Then when you hang up your apron and punch out, you remain an obstinate consumer and avoid, avoid, avoid. Perfect! The best of both worlds.”

Luckily, I didn’t close the book there. As I continued to ponder, I was fortunate to have a few virtual coffee break Zooms with members of BSR’s Human Rights team. Not only were these welcome opportunities to fill some solitary work hours, but I was able to ask about the opt-in/opt-out policy.

I say this to introduce the fact that each person I spoke with had a slightly different stance on the idea of opt-in vs. opt-out. One person’s stance ran through BSR’s organizational method, saying that they would simply never work under the ‘consumer product’ industry focus.

I found not only their perspective, but their reasoning particularly thought-provoking.

They recognized the obvious, stating that the consumer product industry runs on sales like all businesses. In literal terms however, unlike fields like finance, and partially fields like intelligence, technology, and even extractives, the consumer product industry also relies on production.

Particularly in the case of fast fashion, but true for virtually all consumer products, the necessity to produce more and more creates situations where harm is unavoidable.

Even if a company were to pay every single person involved in the supply chain a living wage, as long as it continues to produce and produce, the production cycle squanders billions of tons of natural resources like water, burns incredible excess of fossil fuels, and contributes greatly to the ever-dire climate crisis.

Add to that the fact that people of color who make up the majority of populations in the global south experience the great grunt of the harm wrought from the climate crisis, while the predominantly white global north constitutes the greatest creators of the crisis, harm doubles, triples—is endless.

So how does one stand in a context like this? One person’s reasoned that you can get the company to do better and better and be more and more ethical on some points, but the basic goals of production and consumption will never be actionably ethical. I  hope the cycle will one day become sustainable, but we’re not there yet and persistent harm necessitates that we consider and act on the current situation.

Therefore, ideas of corporate responsibility in contexts like that of fast fashion are difficult to define. Can a company claim to complete its due diligence, even though its bottom line and mere existence are harmful? In a juridical sense, my guess is yes.

I don’t think the definition of corporate responsibility is static (though I need to ask around to confirm this), but my guess is many companies bend the definition to fit their needs . By this, I suppose that companies have an end goal that allows them to turn and maximize profits. In the consumer industry, that end goal is production.

Therefore, it appears logical that a company defines this goal—plainly “what they do”—and on that they won’t compromise. However, when it comes to the process, they’ll hopefully do their best to mitigate harm.

Through my BSR coffee break Zooms, I learned that some people believe if the end goal is harmful and set, the improvements that occur up the chain can begin to look like PR work.

I didn’t hear this as an absolute and don’t say it as one, but believe it brings us back to the original question–“does more good come from working with your supposed ‘enemies’ in hopes of influencing their actions and writing their policies, or is it better to stand against them in opposition?”

Maybe it depends on your timeline. That’s the only “maybe answer” I can muster.

That said, I still don’t wear clothes with words on them.