Woke capitalism: Just a ruse?

Nicky Lama

Nicky Lama

Woke capitalism: Just a ruse?

The consumer should hold the companies accountable by supporting those that back up their commitments with real action and transparency

In recent years, woke capitalism has become a buzzword in the business world, as companies increasingly use their influence and resources to support social and political causes. While some view this trend as a positive development that can drive real change, others are skeptical, seeing it as a marketing ploy. But what exactly is woke capitalism, and why does it matter?

At its core, woke capitalism is the practice of incorporating social and political activism into a company’s brand identity and business operations. On the one hand, this can have a tangible impact on society, as companies have immense power and influence. For example, many companies publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 and made significant donations to racial justice organizations. However, critics argue that woke capitalism can also be used as a marketing ploy. Some companies use “woke” language and imagery to appeal to customers without making significant changes to their business practices or policies. In some cases, companies may even use social justice messaging to distract from unethical practices or to justify exploitation in the name of social justice.

To give a simple example, Uber faced allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination within the company in 2019, yet it used its support of the LGBTQ+ community as a shield against criticism. Nike has been accused of using social justice messaging while allegedly exploiting workers in its overseas factories. These examples show that woke capitalism can be exploitative and hypocritical.

Victoria’s Secret’s recent pivot toward a more body-positive image is no less a fodder for thought. The lingerie giant announced that it will no longer feature “Angels,” its infamous line-up of supermodels, in its marketing campaigns. Instead, the company plans to hire “diverse” models and emphasize comfort and inclusivity in its product offerings.

Now hold on and let’s think. Is it really a step toward more body positivity and inclusivity in the fashion industry, given that the company’s previous marketing campaigns were built on the objectification and sexualization of women’s bodies? It’s natural for critics to question whether this sudden shift toward a more “feminist” image may simply be a cynical attempt to boost sales. This example highlights the complicated nature of woke capitalism and therefore, the potential for hypocrisy and exploitation can never be ruled out.

In the context of Nepal, where the social, political, and economic realities differ from that of the West, the concept of woke capitalism may not be as prevalent. Instead, there is a focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR) and its impact on society and the environment. While some companies in Nepal may be actively engaged in promoting social justice and inclusivity, the primary focus is on regulatory compliance and meeting the basic needs of the people.

However, incidents like the one involving Coca-Cola and the “Jigri Pet Bottles” demonstrate the importance of companies being accountable for their actions and the potential impact of their marketing campaigns on the environment and society. The backlash from environmentalists and subsequent action taken by the company to improve their sustainability practices suggest that companies in Nepal, like anywhere else in the world, need to be mindful of their actions and strive to make a positive impact on society and the environment.

It’s also worth noting the internal impact of woke capitalism on the company’s workforce. Companies that prioritize social and political activism may attract employees who are passionate about these causes and want to work for an organization that shares their values. However, if these companies are not genuine in their commitment to these causes or fail to take meaningful action, employees may become disillusioned and disengaged. In contrast, companies that prioritize transparency and concrete actions may build a stronger sense of trust and loyalty among employees, leading to a more productive and engaged workforce.

Therefore, I think that while the trend of woke capitalism may have great potential to drive real change, it is important for companies to demonstrate their commitment through concrete actions. This means being transparent about their efforts and making significant changes to their business practices and policies.

Otherwise, woke capitalism risks being seen as nothing more than a manipulating superficial marketing strategy, similar in nature to practice in the corporate workforce that boasts of equal employment for all, yet most decision-making positions seem to be held by a cohort of one gender.

To sum up, the trend of woke capitalism has sparked important conversations about the role of corporations in promoting social justice and the ethics of using social and political activism as a branding strategy. While some companies have taken meaningful steps to support causes related to diversity, equity, and inclusion, others may use social justice messaging as a shield against criticism or to distract from unethical practices.

As consumers, we have the power to hold companies accountable by supporting those that back up their commitments with real action and transparency. By engaging in critical discussions about woke capitalism, we can promote a more ethical and responsible business culture that prioritizes the needs and interests of all stakeholders, including employees, customers, and society as a whole.

The author is ESG Lead at VRock and Company, and Country Director at Eco Soap Bank Nepal

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