As 2019 opens, the world faces many of the same troubles that plagued us last year and the year before that and the year before that. To help chip away at systemic problems like racial discrimination or global poverty, some entrepreneurs and private sector corporations are leveraging their strengths toward affecting change.
That doesn’t mean corporate intervention in social causes has been universally cheered. Many remain skeptical of large companies’ motives in adopting a philanthropic mission, whether it be baked into the business model or simply an advertising campaign.
And for those companies, taking a stance on social issues can be a risky, if calculated move.
Most recently, Gillette made headlines for an advertisement touting values of the #MeToo movement, and encouraging men to be “the best” they can be. Some praised the commercial for providing a positive model for masculinity in a world still rife with sexism, but others criticized the company for oversimplifying a complex issue.
Before Gillette’s ad campaign, Dick’s Sporting Goods dropped assault-style rifles and started advocating for gun control after the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School, and Nike featured former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in ads that supported the player’s on-field protests against institutional racism.
While methods and motivations can vary greatly, businesses that go this route share a common tenet: Working for social betterment is probably a good investment — financial or otherwise.
Here are some of the takeaways of the trends we saw in 2018, and why we’re likely to see more of them in the coming year.
1. Younger workers care more than ever before about the social mission of businesses
Across the board, companies are starting to invest more money and resources toward social mission, according to an annual report from Deloitte. This is particularly true of companies hoping to attract younger talent; the same report noted that 86 percent of millennials think business success should be measured by more than just financial performance.
The result? More organizations, no matter their business structure, are working to address societal problems in some way.
In 2017, LinkedIn expanded a program to support refugees seeking to achieve economic self-sufficiency in the U.S. And this past year, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, and other large corporations announced a joint venture to reduce plastic waste in the world’s oceans.
For businesses, it’s important to stay relevant, said Erica Volini, who co-authored the Deloitte report. “Being silent today, it doesn’t work. Because being silent is being viewed as being apathetic. That’s not acceptable from employees, and that’s what they’re craving.”
Large, profitable companies have more resources to devote to tackling major social issues, but Volini said she expects small and mid-sized companies to take on social issues as a way to attract and retain talent, as well.
This doesn’t mean that all young people are looking to private ventures to drive social change. In order for true systemic change to occur, governments need to have a hand in these initiatives, argue both Jason Spicer of University of Toronto and Tamara Kay of University of Notre Dame.
“Thirty to 40 years ago, social enterprise organizations defined themselves in opposition to the government,” said Kay. Now, she said, social entrepreneurs are “realizing they can’t get to scale in a way that solves systemic issues without the government.”
Following the Democratic wave in the 2018 election, Spicer said he expects this year to see a “rising generation of social movements and activists” call for stronger government cooperation in solving social issues. Newly elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., for example, has led the charge in advocating for a “New Green Deal” that would transition the U.S. to 100 percent clean energy within the next 10 years with the help of a federal jobs program and significant public investment in the environment.
While it’s unlikely to be passed by the current divided Congress or championed by President Donald Trump, the plan has earned attention from an upcoming generation eager to see the government play a stronger role in tackling issues that affect them such as climate change and student debt.