Can corporations care, let alone demonstrate solidarity? I had started pondering this question a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. I vividly recall being in a meeting with the Care Collective and stumbling upon a “Primark Cares” pop-up store on my return home. Having studied and written about the use of exploitative labour and modern slavery in supply chains I was taken aback. How can a company that is so emblematic of fast fashion and our throwaway consumer society – a society that couldn’t be more systemically oblivious to the politics of production – claim that it cares?
Through lighting up a few candles and aesthetically mimicking a beauty spa, perhaps.
Of course, Primark was not alone in this. I also remember, for instance, British Gas’s campaign on “unpaid care workers”.
How about focusing instead on its very own, thoroughly unpaid “environmental externalities”, I thought [that is, all these “uncompensated environmental effects of production and consumption that affect consumer utility and enterprise cost outside the market mechanism”, according to the OECD].
Meanwhile other corporations have been anxious to remind us that we should not forget to care more about ourselves, practicing self-care, ideally in market-mediated ways. An email I received back in February 2020 from Eventbrite invited me to a spoiling range of self-caring events such as a “pop-up wellness event created by Nike and Asos”, a “Hula Schoola”, and a “Wellness Summit” (appropriately) taking place in Canary Wharf.
I was also aware, of course, that there was not much that was unique about such forms of what I began to label as “carewashing”. After all, carewashing joins a long genealogy of corporate talk (and to be fair, some corporate walk) around social and environmental issues: from Corporate Social Responsibility statements to cause-related marketing initiatives such as Toms “one-for-one” shoes (that is, every bought pair sponsoring an additional pair for a child in need) and charity credit cards. More sophisticated understandings of the role of corporations in society show how notions of care and responsibility have become significant catalysts in their attempts to legitimise themselves, both in explicit and more implicit terms (Matten and Moon, 2020). No wonder then, that a hot premise within the corporate world has been that however profitable, every corporate action has to have a socio-environmental “purpose”: “to profitably solve the problems of people and then planet, and not profit from creating problems”. Perhaps the only difference this has made has been that, over the last two 2 years, corporations’ engagement with the language of care has taken place in far more explicit terms, mirroring perhaps the realities of our multiple societal care crises (e.g. Fraser, 2016).
And then came Covid. Care now emerged as the ultimate keyword, employed in myriad ways by multiple actors that had previously hardly anything to do with each other: from celebrity twitter posts and politician statements to Elisabeth Windsor’s official address to the nation. But no other actor arguably engaged with care talk so creatively and indeed so extremely capaciously as corporations did; not least at a time when our engagement with the outside world was confined to social media and the few bulletin boards we encountered on our way to essential shopping (which is also reflected in this photo essay). After all, for Interbrand’s chief learning and cultural officer, Rebecca Robins, Covid proved to be the “biggest test of corporate responsibility”.
An Instagram campaign by “Dove Cares” and “Dove Men + Care” foregrounds the way care work should be equally distributed between men and women at home:
While reminding us, of course, that washing our hands is still “one of the best ways to care for ourselves and our loved ones”:
Giffgaff has turned to community care reassuring us that “A good community would be made up of caring individuals that support each other constantly”:
Fairy has taken things a step further by not only reminding us at every opportunity the importance of effortless cleaning, not least on our way to the shops, but also offering us webinars on how to “deal with anxiety in lockdown”
Who actually attends a seminar on dealing with anxiety (and comes out unscathed) when sponsored by a washing up liquid brand and featuring some of the world’s whitest smiles? For those of us afraid of such interactions, Dropbox and hotel chains such as Ace Hotel, instead offer us “digital care packages” to create and share with our loved ones.
These are only a few of the hundreds of examples of corporate care and carewashing I began to observe, featuring nearly all of our world’s famous corporations: from HSBC and Lloyds, to Uber and Toyota, to Actimel and Head and Shoulders. Care is now a keyword used unashamedly and indiscriminately by the good, the bad and the ugly of the corporate world. Even Amazon, no less, a corporation accused of utterly failing to care for its workers’ health and safety standards – to the extent that it was ordered by court to close its French factories – still went ahead with a campaign claiming the exact opposite: “Keeping our people safe while getting you the things you need has never been more important”.
No wonder then that Amazon features at the very top of suggested Covid-related consumer boycotts by various organizations, from The Guardian to the Ethical Consumer Research Association. But it is clearly not alone in the business of carewashing or “coronawashing”. Various media articles continue to expose the numerous hypocrisies of corporate care talk: from all major supermarkets praising their workers, yet firmly putting their profits in their CEO salaries instead to Virgin Group voluntarily offering to produce ventilators for the NHS with the one hand, while suing and getting money off the NHS with the other. Accordingly, boycotting and buycotting lists in the post-Covid era abound despite the well-known problems with trying to responsibilise everyday consumers (e.g. Caruana and Chatzidakis, 2014; Barnett et al. 2010).
To be sure, it would be unfair to put all corporations in the same box. Plenty of potentially more genuine examples of corporate care can be found, such as Monzo’s decision to cut senior management pay by 25% and CEO pay by 100% for 12 months; or Co-Ops’ offering of temporary employment to hospitality workers and continuing support of various community schemes. Not surprisingly perhaps, there is also early research showing that some smaller businesses and worker co-ops have been more resilient and responsive to the covid crisis. Ultimately, the perceived schism between genuine corporate care and carewashing is also subject to the question of whether one thinks that corporations can sometimes, at least, play a key role in providing care and solidarity, however ambivalent their motives may be.
And yet, if the Covid crisis represents a real moment of reckoning, or as many commentators have argued, if a virus has finally held a mirror up to our society and forced us to rethink the breadth and depth of care and social solidarity that it provides, now might be the time to rethink and redesign the role of corporations. We could start by taking a closer look at our “care diamond” (Razavi, 2007), a simple metaphor that care economists use to analyse how care is provisioned across the four key welfare pillars: households, communities (including NGOs and religious organisations), markets and states. Looking at this diamond, we will find that markets and market logics – the playground of corporations – enjoy a far more central role than we should ever have allowed them to in the first place. Decades of ongoing privatisations, state outsourcing and dispossession of public care infrastructures have created an unhealthy imbalance.
We now know that markets have proved largely ineffective in addressing a collective crisis such as Covid-19 . And many of us have finally come to terms with the fact that market logics and care logics cannot be reconciled. Whereas the former is focused on individualism, instrumentality and self-interest the latter emphasises interdependence, mutuality and devotion. This is an observation that various sociologists like Bev Skeggs (e.g. Skeggs, 2014) and care economists such as Sue Himmelweit (e.g. Himmelweit, 2014) have long insisted upon, and which we repeat emphatically in our Care Manifesto (The Care Collective, 2020). In creating a more egalitarian, sustainable and prosperous “care diamond”, we must urgently critique the contemporary role, nature, and place of corporations.
Barnett, C., Cloke, P., Clarke, N., & Malpass, A. (2010). Globalizing responsibility: The political rationalities of ethical consumption. John Wiley & Sons.
Caruana, R., & Chatzidakis, A. (2014). Consumer social responsibility (CnSR): Toward a multi-level, multi-agent conceptualization of the “other CSR”. Journal of Business Ethics, 121(4), 577-592.
Fraser, N. (2016). Capitalism’s Crisis of Care. Dissent, 63(4), 30-37.
Himmelweit, S. (2013). Care: feminist economic theory and policy challenges, Journal of Gender Studies, 16, pp.1–18.
Matten, D., & Moon, J. (2020). Reflections on the 2018 Decade Award: The Meaning and Dynamics of Corporate Social Responsibility. Academy of Management Review, 45(1), 7-28.
Skeggs, B. (2014). Values beyond value? Is anything beyond the logic of capital?. The British Journal of Sociology, 65(1), 1-20.
The Care Collective: Chatzidakis A., Hakim, J, Litter, J., Rottenberg C. and Segal, L. (2020). The Care Manifesto, London and New York: Verso.
Razavi, S. (2007) ‘The Political and Social Economy of Care: Conceptual Issues, Research Questions and Policy Options’. GD Programme Paper No. 3. Geneva: UNRISD.
Andreas Chatzidakis is Professor of Marketing at Royal Holloway University of London. His work focuses on the broader intersection of consumer culture with ethics and politics. In addition to his contribution to The Care Manifesto (forthcoming, Verso), he has published in various academic journals and books such as Ethics and Morality in Consumption: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (with D. Shaw and M. Carrington) and Contemporary Issues in Marketing and Consumer Behaviour (with P. Maclaran and E. Parsons). He can be found on Twitter at @Chatzidakis_A.