Role Reversal: When Business Safeguards the Public Good

Image of Patagonia’s homepage on Tuesday morning

By Erin Leitheiser.

Earlier this week Patagonia launched what may be corporate America’s most forceful action yet against the government’s assaults on the environment and vulnerable communities: announcing that it would sue the Trump administration.  Such action signals a new era for business leadership on social and sustainability issues.

No Government-as-usual and no Business-as-usual
More than a year ago – and before the 2017 U.S. election – I wrote about Trump, anti-intellectualism and the new role for business.  While the takeaway then was that business was increasingly expected to step up contributions to solving social and sustainability issues, the new reality of a Trump administration necessitates yet another re-evaluation of business’s role in society.  No longer is it simply enough for companies to contribute to the broader public good via philanthropy or (more) sustainable business practices; such approaches assume a stable and accepted regulatory environment facilitated by the government.  We now live in a time when Americans are facing a hostile government that is pushing through major changes to the tax code which would benefit the wealthiest at the expense of the poorest, rolling back protections for women to access reproductive healthcare, and reneging on the country’s commitments and obligations to do its fair share to stymy carbon emissions, among countless others.  This is not government-as-usual, so it can no longer be business-as-usual either.

A new Role of Business in Trump Times
We have seen encouraging moves by state and local governments to do what they can to work around Trump (for example, on the Paris agreement), and business is also playing a new role.  While corporate lobbying and political involvement is nothing new, what is different is that business is now engaging on a range of social and environmental issues that have little to do with their core business activities.  A few notable examples include:

Earlier this week, Patagonia’s homepage shifted from its usual backdrop of surfers and climbers to solely a black backdrop with writing in white stating:

The President Stole Your Land
In an illegal move, the president just reduced the size of Bears Ears
and Grand Staircase-Esclante National Monuments.  This is the largest
elimination of protected land in American history.


Patagonia – A Frontrunner in Opposing Harmful Governmental Policy Changes
Patagonia has a long and established history of progressive action both internally and externally.  But, its new efforts signal a move from lodging disagreements to using its corporate resources to actively oppose harmful and discriminatory governmental policy changes.  While in yesteryear government was the space where protections were afforded and business need only comply with relevant regulations, we are now in an era where business must step up to defend the greater good.

Hats off to you, Patagonia.  Corporate America, please take note and know that people everywhere are looking to you to use your power and resources to defend and advance the public good.  Now is your time.

Erin Leitheiser is a PhD Fellow in Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability at Copenhagen Business School.  Her research interests revolve around the changing role and expectations of business in society.  Prior to pursuing her PhD she worked as a CSR manager in a U.S. Fortune-50 company, as well as a public policy consultant with a focus on convening and facilitating of multi-stakeholder initiatives.  She is supported by the Velux Foundation and is on Twitter @erinleit

Pic by Erin Leitheiser, taken from Patagonia’s homepage Tuesday 5th 2017.

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