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‘Faux-activism’: the commodification of the good deed

Earlier this year, Alex Holder wrote an article for The Guardian regarding the recent surge in corporate activism. Featuring a close analysis of fashion houses, coffee shop chains and everything in between, Holder reveals the extent to which activism sells in the modern age. Numbered are the days of simplistic celebrity endorsement – activism is the new kid on the block, and it’s taking the marketing world by storm. But as Holder explains, sadly that’s all there is to it – a clever marketing ploy designed to appeal to the masses.

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Marketing departments are making it rain with activism

The ideas explored in Holder’s article pose an interesting question for debate: by engaging with this corporate activism, through wearing these clothes and using these products – are we contributing to the idea that activism is more of a selling point, rather than a genuine push for change? And are we just buying into the glossy façade of corporate activism, conveniently forgetting the underlying issues with that company or business?

Feminism H&M T-shirt
H&M’s feminism t-shirt

Take for example, the infamous H&M feminism t-shirt that featured Marie Shear’s definition of feminism: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”. This t-shirt was an instant hit with millennials worldwide – but as H&M was being celebrated for its strong stance on feminism and gender inequality issues, its darker side of underpaid labour, unsafe working conditions and unsustainable production methods was effectively ignored. As Holder writes, “these brands aren’t being good from the bottom of their hearts” – instead, their activism is yet another form of branding, carefully considered and manipulated to achieve the highest profits.

Holder’s article adds to the myriad of such ‘faux-activism’ critiques that exist today, largely online and within the digital landscape (see Arwa Mahdawi’s article on ‘feminist’ CEOs, and Nina Bahadur’s analysis of the Dove ‘Real Beauty’ Campaign). We are seeing a growing shift in the way we interpret and interact with corporations, especially within our post-Trump society, and this is reflected in the media we consume. Writers such as Holder actively contribute to current discussion within the public sphere, concerning the motives of big businesses when it comes to activism and ‘doing good’. Can these corporations ever truly be good, in every sense of the word? What are the trade-offs when marketing activism as part of a brand’s identity or mission? The continued media analysis of these issues is necessary for further public debate and critique of these issues, and for a well-informed consumer base as a whole.

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4 thoughts on “‘Faux-activism’: the commodification of the good deed

  1. A troubling phenomenon. It seems that capitalist exploitations are so normalized in Western culture that even those of us critical of them are unable to escape their reach.

    But on a more positive note, this was a lovely, thought-provoking essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a cool post! I’m an owner of one of those H&M shirts! While I do agree that when activism is mentioned in marketing campaigns we as consumers immediately forget about all the other issues involved in capitalism, I think it’s important to note that some of these companies that we buy into are doing the charity work. ‘Thankyou’, an Australian brand that began in Melbourne gives 100% of their profits into water projects overseas to help people gain access to safe drinking water. So while I agree that companies do take advantage of our moral compass, we’ve all gotta start somewhere, and perhaps these companies are beginning the shift!

    Liked by 1 person

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