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Leon Kaye headshot

Send Out the Search Party! We Looked for Woke Corporations, and Couldn’t Find Any

Here's a problem with all the accusations over how woke corporations threatens to weaken America: As with cancel culture, It’s not a thing.
By Leon Kaye
woke corporations

Inside the clown car otherwise known as the U.S. Senate, more politicians are blaring the “get woke go broke” mantra at companies daring to speak out on issues such as voter suppression and social justice. First coined by the author John Ringo in 2018, the “woke” catcall has festered from time to time, as supposedly woke corporations like NASCAR made it clear they heard the clangorous demands for racial justice that roared across much of the U.S. last summer.

But there’s one problem with all the accusations that woke corporations threaten to weaken America and destroy society: As with cancel culture, it’s not a thing.

Those pledges to stop political donations after the riots at the U.S. Capitol on January 6? For the most part, corporate donations to the politicians in question have resumed. A leading trade group suggesting the former vice president invoke the 25th Amendment? Well, the same trade group has also sent plenty of checks to politicians who for years looked the other way as democracy was threatened. 

If you listened to several U.S. senators over the past week, you would have thought America’s leading companies and brands were morphing into the outfitter Patagonia, demanding dodgy access to the ballot box (and fomenting voter fraud) in the process.

But as independent journalist Judd Legum observed, Patagonia’s loud calls for other companies to fund activist groups pushing back against voter suppression in Georgia and other states, while urging business leaders to support landmark federal voting rights acts (H.R. 1 and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act), have so far gone unheard. The one exception is film director and producer J.J. Abrams’ production company. If Patagonia thought it would launch a woke brigade, the outcome was that the troops waved the white flag and ran in the opposite direction.

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Even Georgia-based companies like UPS, Delta and Coca-Cola have been relatively silent about the events in Georgia. Sure, the act of issuing a press statement objecting to new legislation may have been unthinkable a decade ago, but considering what’s at stake today, it’s a stretch to label these press releases as bold, decisive action. It’s certainly not the same as a million dollars, which is what Patagonia recently donated to the voting rights efforts underway in Georgia.

This isn’t the first time that fury over accusations of woke capitalism turned out to be a lot of bark with almost no bite.

Two years ago, entertainment companies including Disney and Netflix found themselves in the middle of a controversy over a new anti-abortion law passed in Georgia. Both companies spoke out against the law and at the time suggested they’d take their business elsewhere.

But as columnist Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post noted, the reality surrounding both companies appeared far more complicated when looking beyond the Georgia state line. One company was considering opening a branded property in Saudi Arabia despite its human rights record, while another pulled an episode from its streaming service after the Saudi government requested it be taken down so viewers in the kingdom wouldn’t see it.

Those two examples are only the entryway by which we could fall into this woke corporations rabbit hole. For example, if you had stumbled upon a documentary on the toxicity of social media on a certain streaming service, the chances are high that it was because one of its algorithms led to that film becoming a suggested watch for you — incidentally, similar algorithms can be found within social networks such as Facebook.

This isn’t to say companies aren't inherently good, bad or politically correct. But they do maintain an unenviable, delicate balance on how their business portfolios align with the demands and beliefs of their stakeholders. Hence, go ahead and call how companies are managing all of this whatever you wish: stakeholder engagement, hypocrisy, pragmatism, goodwill or even looking out for intangible assets such as brand reputation.

Describing these companies as woke, however, is a stretch. Woke companies simply don’t exist. And that includes Patagonia — which, as is the case with its competitors, has faced its own struggles on the diversity and inclusion front.

Image credit: Pixabay

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye