For many American companies, public support for social causes has become an essential part of their business. Earlier this year, Gillette stoked controversy with a campaign urging men to rethink their idea of masculinity. The lingerie brand Aerie has amassed enormous goodwill with years of body-positive underwear ads.
Customers have come to expect corporations to take positions, and now even companies that might rather demur are being conscripted into a kind of dubious activism: Most recently, Hollywood studios reluctantly stepped into the fray over Georgia’s abortion ban after public pressure to take a stand in support of reproductive rights.
“I think, right or wrong, people are looking to business leaders for direction and leadership because they’re not getting that out of Washington,” said Edward Stack, the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods, on a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “I think so many people in business today are trying to fill that void, because we feel like we have to.”
When it comes to how businesses treat their employees, however, that same enthusiasm for equality and progress is often nowhere to be found. Wage stagnation persists even as American corporations’ profits grow, and the gig economy has made it difficult for many workers to take comfort in the basics of traditional employment, such as economic stability and access to health care. Meaningfully raising wages and improving benefits for employees at the expense of profits can feel like the third rail of American enterprise.