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Social Justice Plays a Growing Role in Retail

Protests over mass shootings, attacks on Asian and Black Americans, and lack of diversity have roiled the retail landscape. In response, retailers are pledging action. Will shoppers buy it?

No doubt, retailers may feel like they are getting burned by a fire they did not start, however the retail industry has always been in the epicenter of social turmoil because it directly touches people’s lives, shopper's lives.

Recently, this point was tragically reinforced by the mass shooting in a King Soopers’ store in Boulder, Colorado. Of the 10 people killed, three were King Soopers’ employees and one was an Instacart employee. The rest were shoppers except for a dedicated policeman who arrived on the scene to confront the shooter.

A week after the tragedy, King Soopers’ parent company donated $1 million to the Colorado Healing Fund and offered other ways to support the victims’ families and local staff.

Is that enough?

Woke Washing

After the killing of George Floyd early last year, protests sprung up around the country supporting Black Lives Matter. Many companies (including retailers) issued statements of solidarity.

However, many shoppers, employees and activists often think statements like these are not enough.

Whole Foods, for example, was recently charged with hypocrisy by employees at a store in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. A multi-week protest was staged by store employees who were sent home for wearing Black Lives Matter face masks, which were deemed against the Whole Foods dress code.

Members of the community joined the protest despite corporate statements issued in support of Black Lives Matter by Whole Foods management and millions of dollars donated to the cause by Whole Foods’ owner Jeff Bezos.

A recent story in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) zeroed in on the implications of this issue and coined the term “woke washing,” which describes the process of appropriating the language of social activism into marketing materials while falling short of meaningful actions.

The HBR story outlined three steps companies should take to avoid the label of “woke washing.” These steps are:

  • Organizational Accountability: This includes transparency of data-based goals and making them available for review; clear justification for taking specific reasons for taking these steps; monitor and evaluate the action plan for compliance; and enforcement through performance reviews and employee recognition.
  • Accountability in Leadership: This includes shifting the balance of power at the top of the organization and focusing on sustainable change.
  • Individual Accountability: This includes counseling and support for employees, adding cultural competency and diversity training, and conducting regular pulse checks to ensure momentum does not flag.

Retailers Respond

Target, which is headquartered in Minneapolis, the site of the George Floyd tragedy, has been a leader in commitment to diversity. Since issuing a workforce diversity statement in 2019, key changes that Target has made include: leadership team composition is now 30% non-white, more than half of stores are run by women, and a third of stores are run by people of color.

Target's action plan also includes:

  • Leveraging stores, supply chain and HQ experiences to provide broader leadership pathways for Black team members to develop and advance.
  • Developing programs to hire and retain Black team members in career areas with low levels of representation, including technology, data sciences, merchandising and marketing.
  • Increasing Target’s network of mentors and sponsors to help Black team members accelerate and advance their careers.
  • Ensuring Target’s benefits and partnerships drive wellness and safety for Black team members.
  • Conducting anti-racism training for leaders and team members that educate, build inclusion acumen, and foster a sense of belonging.
  • Pledging $10 million to racial equality organizations, such as the National Urban League and the African American Leadership Forum.                                                                           

In addition, Target has added a new paid holiday for its employees – June 19 or Juneteenth, a day that marks the end of slavery in Texas in 1865, a commemoration that has since spread to other states.

“We recognize that the racial trauma the country is experiencing now is not new, but throughout recent weeks there has been a sense that this time is, and has to be, different,” Brian Cornell, chairman and CEO of Target, said in a statement. “Juneteenth takes on additional significance in this moment. Moving now to recognize it on an annual basis — as a day to celebrate, further educate ourselves or connect with our communities — is one more important action Target can take as a company to help the country live up to the ideal of moving forward in a new way.”

Other companies that recognize June 19 as a paid holiday include Nike, JCPenney and Google.

Walmart has also emerged as a clear social justice leader. It has pledged to release detailed reports twice a year on the progress it is making to improve culture, diversity and inclusion. In its first report, issued last September, highlights include:

  • Women make up 55% of the global workforce and 31% are officers.
  • In the U.S., women comprise 48% of new hires and 27% are women of color.
  • People of color comprise 55% of new hires and of these 28% are African American/Black.

Walmart’s report includes granular detail in such areas as international markets, gender and ethnicity, level of job, and a clear mission statement that pledges support by the senior leadership team.

Other social justice responses recently taken by retailers include:

  • Ben & Jerry’s has pledged to work with Black Lives Matter and dismantle white supremacy by working with and donating funds to the Advancement Project.
  • The Body Shop has implemented an “open hiring” program that eliminates traditional background checks and educational requirements for job seekers.
  • SAS, a software vendor used by many retailers, created an AI tool to power advanced analytics to comb through scholarly journals for data on endangered species so that scientists can track changes quickly enough to help.
  • Kroger established a $5 million fund to improve diversity, equity and inclusion. “We share in feelings of sadness, fear and outrage,” said CEO Rodney McMullen in a video. “We must use our voice to express that we are against racism and injustice against the Black Community. We can and we must do better as a company, community and country. It is my responsibility to help Kroger be part of the solution.”

For an additional list of retailers that have taken social stands, which were highlighted in a previous blog, click here.

Retailers have traditionally avoided taking social justice stands based on the thinking that it could be bad for business by upsetting some segment of shoppers.

However, the retail marketplace has changed. Today's thinking, driven by the influence of viral media, is fueled by the reality that if a retailer doesn’t take a clear proactive stand, then shoppers and activists may take it for them.

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