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Gary E. Frank headshot

A Guide for Companies to Embrace Social Justice

By Gary E. Frank
woman sitting in a circle of flowers at a social justice and civil rights demonstration in south carolina after the murder of george floyd

A demonstrator sits inside a circle of flowers at a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. (Image: Andrew Valdivia/Unsplash)

By wide margins, workers, consumers and investors in the United States want businesses to engage with a broad range of social and economic issues, including climate change, racial justice, LGBTQ+ inclusion and unionization. Despite this consensus, such efforts continue to attract backlash from conservative policymakers, legislators, activists and media platforms who diminish social justice engagement by using the word “woke” as an all-purpose pejorative. 

In response, BSR's Center for Business and Social Justice published a free, downloadable guide to help businesses address the barriers to taking action, such as a fear of backlash.

Matters of social justice are already intertwined with everyday business operations, because businesses are integral components of our societal framework and deeply connected to our communities, said Jarrid Green, co-director of the Center. This connection extends to the individuals who work for these businesses and those who invest in them.

“It’s important for businesses to engage in this work because: One, they’re already engaged in it," Green said. “They actively participate in our systems and processes that allow them to benefit from people and communities, the infrastructure that we build, and invest in them as a society. Two, we want our businesses, as well as our academic institutions and other sectors, to reflect the needs of our society and the America that we live in.”

The guide identifies the most common barriers to corporate action on social justice gleaned from the corporate members of BSR (the Business for Social Responsibility coalition) in focus groups, surveys, and ongoing requests for assistance. And it provides actionable steps to surmount those barriers. 

For example, researchers at the Center argue that “mistakes are inevitable.” So, the more a company is able to openly discuss its engagement with social justice issues, the more likely it will be targeted by people looking to stir up controversy, who dislike its work or who expect more, despite its best efforts. Instead of striving to appear perfect, they recommend that companies lean on their values, don’t back down, and pay attention to stakeholder engagement to anticipate blind spots and prevent potential missteps. 

A major factor in releasing the social justice guide at this time is how much the political and social environment has changed since the Center’s founding in 2022, Green said. At that time, there was a lot of interest in corporate engagement on social justice issues in the aftermath of the racially motivated killings of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, he said. 

Since 2020, Fortune 100 companies committed about $340 billion to fighting racial injustice, according to the McKinsey Institute for Black Economic Mobility. As the backlash against these measures grew, many companies pulled back on their commitments or were more reluctant to draw attention to their efforts, Green said.

“Since 2020, we’ve seen companies go and try to find the groups who are trying to move things forward across a range of social justice issues and working with community groups, academic institutions, and major national, regional or local nonprofit partners to actually address specific issues,” Green said. “Having that access and that network is incredibly important because that's how you get the work done.”

Practitioners of corporate engagement on social justice lack an ecosystem of support that can help them understand the right thing to do, how to move forward, and the best practices to do so, Green said. The social justice guide is intended to foster that ecosystem.

“What’s happening [now] is you see a range of activity, all of which doesn’t seem like it makes a lot of sense in terms of proactive behavior,” Green said. “In reality, it’s just people trying to move forward on their own, and what they need is a sense of community for their work to get done.”

Gary E. Frank headshot

Gary E. Frank is a writer with more than 30 years of experience encompassing journalism, marketing, media relations, speech writing, university communications and corporate communications. 

Read more stories by Gary E. Frank