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Edward Quevedo headshot

How Should Companies Lead in Troubled Times? Allyship Is Only a Start

By Edward Quevedo

Co-written with Mackinzee Macho, a program manager in the Regenerative Justice Cities and Regenerative Design Programs at the Foresight Lab. Macho has delivered podcasts and written essays highlighting her program areas and plans on teaching courses and convening dialogues on these topics as well. She is a candidate for the Bachelor of Arts in Environmental Science at Carthage College. She is currently considering the pursuit of graduate studies in International Diplomacy. 

Business occupies a unique place in our society. It can breed either harmony or dissonance.  Amidst a season of ecosystem collapse and chaos, of social and cultural upheaval, and at this economic crossroads, they must seek the former. 

Companies must decide: are they bystanders to this season of upheaval, are they allies to the millions of victims of racial and social injustice, or do they adopt an intentional anti-racist and progressive stance?

The current economy exists primarily to consume natural resources and convert them into amusements and distractions. It has not ended unemployment or poverty, and it also foments endless conflicts over resources. From palm oil to chocolate, from oil to diamonds, its gears and pulleys put nations and workers of color at risk from low wages, ecological decay and dangerous work to benefit the few at the sacrifice of the many.

Only once, in 1999, has the African American unemployment rate been below 8.0 percent.  African Americans face a continuing unemployment crisis. Companies which continue with profits as usual are complicit in these facts.  Systemic racism and discrimination are embedded into the fabric of our economy, interwoven as they are with housing, criminal justice, healthcare, education, banking systems that all contribute directly to perpetuating racial and myriad other injustices. These facts demand that companies claiming to stand for good in the world act with courage and conviction to end these patterns.

Companies can be allies, or they can be anti-racist. Allyship corresponds with acknowledgement: we hear, see and understand your struggles and cries for change. Individuals, communities, businesses, institutions and governments can recognize those seeking reconciliation and redress - but they should not stop there.

Businesses must speak out with the same courage as their employees demonstrate when they take to the streets as citizens. Corporate citizens, if citizenship they claim, should demonstrate the moral fiber to stand as anti-racist and anti-othering enterprises.

For example, Ben & Jerry’s goes beyond allyship, as the brand speaks on issues ranging from social justice, to environmental protection and regenerative farming techniques. Its social media outlet advocates for many of the progressive postures that have swept our nation. Proceeds from its Justice Remix’d flavor directly support research and activism to overturn existing racist policies.

Social justice can be embodied, measurably, in a company’s products. Guayaki, makers of yerba mate, employs a profoundly regenerative business model. This company has designed business processes that directly support indigenous peoples’ sovereignty in the countries where their mate is harvested. The enterprise advances equity by employing formerly incarcerated persons, educating local youth about the values of regeneration and regenerative agriculture, and investing in local cultural entrepreneurs.

Guayaki’s operations prevent rainforest deforestation, draw down and sequester carbon into forests and soils, and drive improvements in the quality of local water supplies and biodiversity. These are measurable direct contributions to equity and justice. In essence, ecological and social justice are ingredients contained in every bottle and can of Guayaki’s products.

Other examples exist. Amazon, Microsoft and other firms provided impact data in support of the Washington state lawsuit against the Muslim ban early in the Trump Administration. A wide array of companies renewed their commitments to fighting climate change in the wake of dismantled EPA rules.

Regenerative design can directly contribute to advancing the goals of social and ecological justice. We use this term in an intentional and mindful way. We mean designing business processes, brands, and products, as well as our approach to our people (call it culture cultivation, please, not human resources) for outcomes that give back more to society, community, and the planet than they take.

In the late 1990s and early 2000’s, we had the luxury of driving design thinking into products and business operations. Design for environment, or DFE, was the capstone term.

Today, we have no such luxury. We must extend the concept of design thinking to pursue design for activism, design for social justice and design for anti-racism. CEOs and other corporate leaders, employees and others across the corporate ecosystem must attach themselves to actions and policies that elevate their ethical status. In an era where standing out means standing for and standing with, corporate actors stay on the moral sidelines at their own peril. 

Elite, admired businesses must and will take controversial and principled stands. Opposing political policies antithetical to the values claimed by a firm will pay dividends in customer loyalty and profits, especially amongst a new generation of consumers who expect principled commitments from the brands they support. Inaction against or complicity in the current system conditions will (and should) cost companies good will and good people.

Instead of advertising the latest shoes, Nike has instead been airing an advertisement on racial justice in America. Daily reminders - such as billboards and advertisements - are essential to confront an unjust system that inflicts daily struggles on Americans of color, who choose alternative sexual expression, and who differ in other ways that the majority find easy to marginalize. These acts force those who benefit from the regnant system to remember the needs of their brothers and sisters, while also letting those in the systematically disadvantaged communities know that they are heard, seen, and advocated for.

What is required in the current milieu is an elevated imagination and moral fiber, and stepping out of line with simpler, more conventional and safer modes of doing business. Can companies go deeper, and take direct actions to benefit communities that have so long been suppressed and marginalized? Can large companies intentionally act to purchase raw materials and ingredients from cultural entrepreneurs of color? Or relocate back into communities that need the jobs the most?

Yves Chouinard of Patagonia poignantly notes that, “To do good, you actually have to do something.” We stand with Chouinard and other activist and progressive companies, forged in the conviction that our work must have resonance and harmony like the shimmering of the universe. Through this work, we make a sacred and solemn pledge: to use this season of change to communicate the vision of cultural transformation toward a just, verdant, and regenerative future, which lives in our hearts, to other hearts.

Image credit: Logan Weaver/Unsplash

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Edward Quevedo is the Director of Regenerative Design, and the Head of Practice, at The Foresight Lab.

Read more stories by Edward Quevedo