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The Brands Feel Your Pain

What pandemic responses from Starbucks to 1-800-Contacts say about the grotesque shortcomings of corporate social responsibility

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Last week, the famously stoic Anna Wintour said she “broke down” upon hearing from her friend Ralph Lauren, the designer and businessman worth approximately $6 billion, that the philanthropic wing of the Ralph Lauren Corporation had pledged $10 million to organizations undertaking coronavirus relief efforts. As the pandemic continues to spread and medical supplies around the globe run low, a number of luxury and mass market brands have pledged money to charities fighting the outbreak or even pivoted their production to manufacturing hospital garments and other medical supplies. New Balance and Brooks Brothers are now making masks and gowns; Louis Vuitton’s perfume department and Kylie Jenner’s skincare line are manufacturing hand sanitizer. “I have never been more proud of our industry,” Wintour wrote in Vogue.

In a similar effort, Sweetgreen and Starbucks pledged to donate free salad bowls and coffee, respectively, to hospital workers, while Chipotle, Popeyes, and KFC said they would temporarily waive delivery fees to accommodate people under stay-at-home orders. For their part, the eight largest banks, which include Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, graciously promised to halt the controversial and self-serving practice of stock buybacks, at least through the end of June, to free up more funds for individual and business loans. These initiatives and others have been accompanied by a deluge of brands blasting coronavirus updates to customers, including somewhat maladroit dispatches like the one from 1-800-Contacts that read, “A combination of excitement and solemn responsibility rested upon us all: during these uncertain times, you decided to turn to us for contact lenses.”

According to several industry reports, brands must now perform an uneasy balancing act when it comes to their marketing and public relations efforts as the coronavirus death toll continues to climb. “They’re not sure what to do because this is unprecedented and there’s a need to strike a tone between being very sensitive to what is a very scary time [and making money],” one P.R. consultant told Vox. Reception to such efforts can vary, often depending on whether a given brand was considered, even in myopically capitalist terms, “virtuous” before the pandemic. For instance, Los Angeles Apparel, an American Apparel spin-off launched by ousted CEO and sexual predator Dov Charney in 2016, announced in March that it would start manufacturing surgical masks and gowns for hospital workers. But on Instagram, the company said it would also sell the same masks to consumers ($30 for a pack of 3) and subsequently came under fire both for its perceived coronavirus profiteering and for its ads, which displayed models posing in cloth masks and little else, true to Charney’s signature sleazy-casual branding. (“So tasteful,” grumbled one Instagram commenter.) The retailer Everlane also attracted criticism for announcing a jeans sale with the message “We’re all in this together” shortly after laying off its “customer experience” team, which recently announced a union drive and has called the layoffs illegal retaliation.

In the current economic freeze, with unemployment claims at nearly 10 million, the retail sector has suffered a serious shock that’s unlikely to abate soon. Those in the industry hit hardest are predictably the low-wage retail workforce who have been furloughed or laid off. On the other hand, it’s difficult to muster much sympathy for the brands themselves, which often seem to display levels of sensitivity inversely proportional to their profits. (McDonald’s, for instance, unveiled a new logo that depicted its golden arches separated in a nod to social distancing, while also fighting sick leave for its workers.)

Yet the problem isn’t limited to individual brands’ pandemic-time behavior, no matter how tone-deaf or pandering much of it seems. The outpouring of brands attempting to acknowledge or even alleviate the coronavirus crisis is, in many ways, just the product of a larger deficient corporate social responsibility, or CSR, model that envisions the market as the primary engine of social change.

CSR took off in the early 2000s after a string of high-profile P.R. disasters in the previous decade, including protests over Nike’s labor abuses and Shell’s controversial attempt to sink an oil rig in the North Sea. “Rather than shrink away from the battle,” Deborah Doane, a writer who covers civil society and philanthropy, wrote in 2006, “corporations emerged brandishing CSR as the friendly face of capitalism.” Today, CSR initiatives range from MAC’s Viva Glam program, which donates proceeds from lipstick sales to charities (and recently pledged $10 million to coronavirus relief funds) to the charitable foundations established by tech giants like Google and Facebook. Of course, though such projects do provide welcome aid in some cases, they’re usually also convenient opportunities for P.R. boosts without much sacrifice to companies’ bottom lines. And in many cases, corporate do-good measures serve as a distraction from their most egregious practices. As author and environmentalist Bill McKibben once wrote of Walmart’s much-publicized introduction of an organic line, “It makes scant difference whether Wal-Mart starts stocking organic food or not, because the real problem is the imperative to ship products all over the world, sell them in vast, downtown-destroying complexes, and push prices so low that neither workers nor responsible suppliers can prosper.” It’s also obvious enough at this point that while corporations talk a good game about serving their communities and the public, their lobbying and political donations tell a very different story.

The CSR boom is also the result of decades of free-market policies in which the government has increasingly declined to intervene on climate change, poverty, and economic inequality and left such problems to be “solved” by the market. When it comes to the pandemic, the absence of a coherent or consistent federal response—let alone a well-functioning safety net or an adequate national stockpile of medical supplies—has created a void that leaves us at the mercy of corporations’ goodwill to procure protective equipment for health care professionals and other essential workers. The absurdity is that there are still other more sustainable and holistic options, including the proper use of the Defense Production Act, which Trump has only half-heartedly and sporadically invoked so far. As national security expert James E. Baker wrote in The New York Times last Friday, “The federal government has all the authority it needs to close the supply gap, allocate resources among states, and prepare for the production and distribution of the vaccine to come.” It just won’t, is all.

In the meantime, brands and their marketing schemes will continue to serve as an insufficient backstop to the medical supply shortage and lack of national social and economic safeguards. Last week, Levi’s announced it would host an online concert series featuring artists like Questlove and Jaden Smith to provide some joy in the midst of the pandemic. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, pondering how we all contribute every day to making the world a place we want to inhabit,” Levi’s chief marketing officer wrote. “And so, in this frame of mind, I’ve been challenging myself and my team: What can we do? How can we help?” It’s a nice thought. One might have asked the same question of the company in 2018, when it paid an effective federal tax rate of zero percent.