It’s standard operating procedure in the retail world: Avoid taking a stance on the headlines. With the exception of the occasional socially conscious company like Nike or Patagonia, general business wisdom dictates that the less said, the better. That’s why it has been extraordinary to see so much of American business—particularly retailing—make bold and passionate statements following the death of George Floyd and the subsequent national discussion on the state of race relations and police brutality.
Never before in modern business history have so many companies spoken up about these issues, reflecting a willingness to alienate some percentage of their customer base in pursuit of doing the right thing.
One of the first statements came from Nordstrom on June 1, as protests ignited across the country and the world:
“The events of this weekend are one more painful reminder that injustice remains in our world. We can fix the damage to our stores. Windows and merchandise can be replaced. We continue to believe as strongly as ever that tremendous change is needed to address the issues facing Black people in our country today. We strive to be a positive force for change in every community we serve.”
Nordstrom’s announcement was followed by a number of similar statements made by other retailers, often in messages to their own customers, but also on social media and to the general press. One such letter came from Bloomingdale’s president Tony Spring on June 12, in a broadly distributed email titled “How We’re Committing to Change”:
“The past few weeks have been humbling and challenging. We have turned inward and looked outward—listening to our colleagues, reading your comments, learning from thought leaders in the Black community and coming together as an organization. We have used this time to reflect on the role we must play in creating a more equitable society. Black lives must matter.”
Writing that “today, we don’t have all the answers,” Spring outlined some of the actions the retailer, as part of Macy’s Inc., was taking, including new internal programs to promote diversity and a commitment to give $1 million to social justice organizations.
Brands’ conversations about race transcended artificial barriers of channels of distribution or income level. On Walmart’s website on June 5, CEO Doug McMillon posted comments he had made internally to the employees a few days earlier:
“The murder of George Floyd is tragic, painful and unacceptable. His death is not an isolated event. We remember Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many other Black Americans who have been killed. It’s important that we all understand that our problems, as a nation, run much deeper than one horrible event. Our nation has failed to fully acknowledge and resolve the root issues. Slavery, lynching, the concept of separate but equal and the other realities from our past have morphed into a set of systems today that are all too often, unjust. That’s why we see so many people mobilized and that’s why we see a diverse group of Americans joining the protest.”
McMillon wrote about the measures the company was taking, including committing $100 million for the creation of a center for racial equity. For Walmart, which has often been harshly criticized for being on the wrong side of social issues, this was a noteworthy change in attitude.
Among the wave of corporate statements on racial injustice, some were, of course, better than others. A few included more rhetoric than action, and some critics have questioned whether these statements are sincere pledges or cynical PR ploys. But the fact that companies even see public relations value in taking a stance on racism and police reform (or a PR hit in not taking a stance) is a fundamental shift.
While business will always be about business, this moment is proving it’s not always just about business.
Warren Shoulberg is the former editor in chief for several leading B2B publications. He has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business; received honors from the International Furnishings and Design Association and the Fashion Institute of Technology; and been cited by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other media as a leading industry expert. His Retail Watch columns offer deep industry insights on major markets and product categories.