When will firms like Ben & Jerry's stop lecturing us?

13 January 2022

12:15 AM

13 January 2022

12:15 AM

Is anyone else fed up of corporate virtue-signalling? From banks boasting of their commitment to diversity and equality, to train companies changing their liveries to the rainbow flag, or supermarket chains proclaiming they are fighting racism, enough is enough. Thankfully, the moneymen who matter to big businesses – and whom they might actually listen to – are now finally speaking out.

Fund manager Terry Smith and leading shareholder in Unilever – owner of the notoriously woke ice cream firm Ben & Jerry’s – has attacked the company for its underperformance, pointing a finger at its obsession with political posturing. ‘Unilever seems to be labouring under the weight of a management which is obsessed with publicly displaying sustainability credentials at the expense of focusing on the fundamentals of the business’, he said.

He’s not alone. A poll released this week found that more than half of Britons think businesses are out of touch in their politicking. According to the survey of 2,000 adults by Hanbury Strategy and Stack Data Strategy, 56 per cent of respondents believe that businesses do not reflect their priorities. Only nine per cent said that businesses in Britain shared their values. Almost 70 per cent said bosses should instead focus on communicating how they can better improve customer service.

The survey asked respondents what they thought of a John Lewis advert promoting diversity and inclusion by featuring a young boy wearing a dress and lipstick. Asked whether this reflected the company ‘sharing my values’, 69 per cent did not agree, with 27 per cent saying that ‘there are more important things to focus on’.

Respondents might have added that a ‘more important thing to focus on’ would be trying to save its high street outlets; in March last year, John Lewis announced that a number of its stores would be closed permanently. A comparable charge could be made against HSBC. This is the bank known for its ‘Global citizen’ TV adverts in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, which boasted ‘we are not an island’. It followed this campaign up with a more recent effort, ‘Opportunity doesn’t do borders’, with its admonitory nod towards racial borders and the glass ceiling. Let’s not forget: HSBC shut 82 branches in the UK last year, much to the detriment and inconvenience of the old, small traders and those who live in the regions. And it’s all very well to paint your train rainbow colours, but what about dealing with an inefficient and overpriced train service, and paltry services in the North? It’s a distraction.

It’s the implicit discrepancy that grates here. In their corporate virtue-signalling, these remote businesses – in the case of banks, now literally remote businesses – profess to care about grand fashionable issues, but in real life don’t care about the little people. People perceive an ‘Anywhere’ elite displaying disdain or ignorance for the left behind ‘Somewhere’ class. The cleavage is made more evident in corporate television adverts, where white males, who make up more than 40 per cent of the population, are a vanishing demographic.

The sense of alienation on behalf of unfashionable people from the elite is compounded by events such as in October 2020, when, after a febrile summer in which it became fashionable and sometimes mandatory to ‘take the knee’, Sainsbury’s issued the statement:

‘We proudly represent and serve our diverse society and anyone who does not want to shop with an inclusive retailer is welcome to shop elsewhere.’ 

The message: if you’re not one of us, you’re not coming in.

It’s ingratiating enough to be constantly lectured about diversity and the environment, but we can just about tolerate and forgive it when it comes from the young and naïve. But when big businesses do it, it’s especially offensive. In their pursuit of  lucre, they betray their insincerity and even hypocrisy.

Nike, American Airlines and Coca-Cola were criticised last year by the US-based Consumers’ Research body for using ‘woke politics’ to ‘distract from their hypocritical failings’. Nike was singled out for its support of BLM amidst question marks over its supply chain in China. But perhaps the most outlandish corporate virtue-signalling comes from the sometimes ice-cream vendor Ben & Jerry’s. In July 2020, the company criticised Home Secretary Priti Patel over the migrant crisis in the English Channel. ‘People wouldn’t make dangerous journeys if they had any other choice,’ it said. This is the same firm that has been the target of protests by migrant workers who have alleged awful, exploitative practices in the firm’s supply chain.

Cynicism, opportunism and liberal guilt: corporate virtue-signalling has many origins. It’s always been a sideshow, an indulgence by the privileged. In times of rising inflation and an increase in the cost of living, it’s even more of a nauseating irrelevance.

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