(Photo: People walk by businesses after looting in Minneapolis on May 28, 2020.)
"We can replace our windows and handbags, but we cannot bring back George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and too many others. Each of these black lives matter.”
In a letter published on LinkedIn, Jide Zeitlin, chairman and CEO of Tapestry, Inc., expressed understanding, compassion and perspective in the face of looting that occurred during the Black Lives Matter protests.
As a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, maintaining solidarity in the face of destruction and theft speaks volumes. Zeitlin is one of four Black CEOs of a Fortune 500 company — a fact that itself speaks to the inequities experienced by Black Americans. In an interview with Good Morning America, Zeitlin — whose company owns Coach, Kate Spade and Stuart Weitzman — went so far as to say that the company’s losses can’t compare to those experienced by society, families and individuals due to systemic racism. He also noted that America will continue to face the same challenges until the underlying systemic issues are corrected.
In a sea of pithy #BlackLivesMatter posts on social media, Zeitlin’s remarks are a breath of fresh air, especially as they acknowledge the magnanimity large companies are capable of in this time of pain and hardship.
While words can only go so far, Zeitlin’s statement is powerful, as protestors continue to demand justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and countless others. These statements are especially meaningful against the backdrop of the rhetoric President Donald Trump has used toward looting.
On May 28, the president tweeted, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” a phrase also used by Miami Police Chief Walter Headley in 1967. Headley’s policing disproportionately affected Black communities, and he once said during a news conference that he didn’t mind being accused of police brutality.
Given the context, Zeitlin’s statement is a simple example of political corporate social responsibility filling the “regulatory gap” where government is not stepping up as it should.
Other brands have also approached the riots with humanity. In his letter on May 29, Brian Cornell, chairman and CEO of Target, didn’t speak directly to looting, but he acknowledged the injustices and pain we are facing as a nation and noted the company’s emergency response for affected communities and employees.
“As a team we’ve vowed to face pain with purpose,” Cornell wrote. Target, which is based in Minneapolis, has temporarily closed or limited hours at 200 stores due to threats of looting. Its merchant and distribution teams are providing essentials like first aid equipment, bottled water and diapers to those in affected areas who may depend on the stores for what they need, he said.
Against the backdrop of these statements made by large companies, many of the small businesses that have been looted struggle to persist.
While looting may be a drop in the bucket for a Fortune 500 company, it can mean bankruptcy for mom-and-pop boutiques, especially after the coronavirus pandemic has shut them down for months. Small businesses don’t have the same luxury as retail chains to be generous in the face of property damage and theft.
Big businesses are in the unique position to give even more than what has been stolen and truly make a difference.
Those who are looting are illustrating the poverty people feel in a society that allows the top 1 percent of the population to hold more wealth than the entire middle class. Corporate compassion and giving are vital in this moment — but in the long run, transparency and accountability make ripples.
Amazon provides a useful example. The multinational conglomerate announced on June 3 that it would donate $10 million to organizations like the NAACP. Yet the company still places many of its workers in unsafe conditions and with inhumane productivity expectations, a problem exacerbated by the fact that Amazon’s leadership team doesn’t adequately reflect the diversity of its employee base.
If companies need an economic reason to become more honest and more socially responsible, of course value-driven companies gain a competitive advantage in this day and age.
To begin that journey, Zeitlin recommends business leaders do something that’s not exactly quantifiable: Be human — and there’s no better time. Zeitlin told Good Morning America that Tapestry, for one, will be having more of the honest conversations necessary for real change going forward.
Image credit: Lorie Shaull/Wiki Commons