From corporate carewashing to genuine care?
The coronavirus crisis forces us to reconsider the business of business.
The coronavirus pandemic is both a crisis of care and a market crisis like no other. After three decades of rabid neoliberal capitalism, it appears that the “rules of the [business] game” have now abruptly altered, no longer congruent with famous free-market capitalists such as Milton Friedman. Facing the possibility of a huge surge in mortality, people have, for once, been put before profits, if only temporarily
Facing the possibility of a huge surge in mortality, people have, for once, been put before profits.
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The resulting upheaval is cataclysmic, and not just for key business sectors. More profoundly, it has disrupted dominant ideas about society and our role within it. The notion that we depend more upon those “invisible hearts” that care for others, rather than the “invisible hands” that run our economies, appears to be the new-found wisdom, as feminist economists such as Nancy Folbre always asserted.
This was evident in our noisy collective claps of appreciation and solidarity with all our health and care workers. At odds with everything we have been hearing for decades, it is now all too apparent that, when it comes to care provision, we cannot rely on markets. We have instead turned to states hoping for radical investment in health infrastructures, to our underfunded communities for the provision of local care and solidarity networks, and to our families and friends for love and comfort.
The role of business in this new reality is inevitably being rewritten. For their part, many businesses are struggling to survive and legitimise their role amidst ongoing accusations of profiteering and outright failures to care for their workers, customers, communities and the world at large.
Notions of corporate care and responsibility, and the lack of it, are of course nothing new. Corporations have long tried to legitimise their role in society through various “social responsibility”, “good citizenship” and philanthropic projects.
Somewhat prophetically, over the last two years they have been engaging with the language of care and care-giving in increasingly explicit terms. Once notorious for workers’ exploitation in its supply chains, Primark’s 2020 “Primark Cares” initiative broadcasts its concern with care and responsibility, including boutique pop-up stores that proclaim a commitment to ‘taking care of our people and our planet’. Last year British Gas and Unilever, both previously accused of complicity in environmental destruction, launched campaigns addressing the hidden costs of domestic care work for their employees and society at large, introducing products promising women greater choices over the quality of their lives, and helping them in creating brighter, more caring futures for their families.
Unsurprisingly, such corporate attempts to care have been met with varying degrees of suspicion. After all, the potential of carewashing follows a long genealogy of corporate communications – from greenwashing to pinkwashing to femmewashing – that point to stark discrepancies between what corporations say and what they do in terms of their actual social and environmental impact.
Yet, the new pathogen has radically deepened the schism between reputation-driven carewashing and the possibility of genuine organisational care. Corporate carelessness has been only too apparent during the CoronaCrisis: from eBay profiteering, to Amazon workers being sacked after striking for not being provided with even minimum standards of protection and forced to work in dangerous conditions to reports of local grocery shops overpricing toilet roll and hand sanitisers to the very customers they relied upon a few weeks earlier. In contrast, other businesses have extended their opening hours to care for the elderly and care workers (e.g. Sainsburys), extended their services to facilitate our transition to digitally-mediated encounters (e.g. Zoom), and even shifted their production towards essential products (from 3D printing of ventilators to hand sanitisers by LVMH and Brewdog). Consumers are taking note, to judge by the various boycotts and “buycott” lists, as well as the numerous reports on business responses to coronavirus.
But to what extent could or should corporate care and carelessness be regulated via marketplace and consumer practices, as opposed to state intervention and regulation?
Academic scholarship on ethical or political consumerism shows that there is a much longer history to both corporate and governmental efforts to create greater consumer responsibility[i], not least in their attempts to alleviate their own role in relation to systemic social and environmental injustices.
Meanwhile, ordinary people are once again blamed, or at least made to feel guilty, for both the market’s and government’s pandemic failures. Panic buying has been blamed for food shortages – rather than the inadequate infrastructure of the food system – even though people have been told not to leave their homes. Keyworkers and people forced to work simply to survive are blamed for using public transport.
Our understanding of ‘corporate care’ needs to take into account both its explicit and implicit manifestations[ii]. This is because, beyond what is strategically expressed in marketing campaigns, corporate care and social responsibility is also subject to societal and regulatory norms that can and do shift over time and place. Donald Trump’s recent invocation of the Defence Production Act to force companies to make more ventilators is just one abrupt turn-around in which government attempts to assert control over market production.
If the business of business is currently changing rapidly, so should our demands for a progressive way forward. To begin with, we must learn the hard lessons from the 2008 crisis and insist that, this time around, any business bailouts come with the severest strings attached, not least in terms of business commitment to a green new deal.
We also need to use this moment to collectivise and re-nationalise public services and care infrastructures that have for far too long been held hostage to the neoliberal dogma of privatisation and marketisation. The new forms of nationalisation occurring over the last few weeks – such as commercial railways coming under government control – need to be a longstanding solution rather than a temporary fix.
Models – like the radical municipalism promoted in Preston and Barcelona – have proved themselves hugely successful.
Furthermore, now is the best of times to explore and encourage possibilities for more democratic, co-operative economic networks in efforts to revive our local communities and economies. Such models – like the radical municipalism promoted in Preston and Barcelona – have proved themselves hugely successful. More broadly, we need to ensure that it is those with the most resources, the ownership and managerial classes, not ordinary people, who are forced to show they can genuinely care, and who pay for this crisis.
[i] Caruana, R., & Chatzidakis, A. (2014). Consumer social responsibility (CnSR): Toward a multi-level, multi-agent conceptualization of the “other CSR”. Journal of Business Ethics, 121(4), 577-592.
Barnett, C., Cloke, P., Clarke, N., & Malpass, A. (2010). Globalizing responsibility: The political rationalities of ethical consumption. John Wiley & Sons.
[ii] Matten, D., & Moon, J. (2020). Reflections on the 2018 Decade Award: The Meaning and Dynamics of Corporate Social Responsibility. Academy of Management Review, 45(1), 7-28.
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