How Social Issues Rise (Again)

The breakdown of a current system creates the potential to redesign it, but talk is cheap. Actions are the new currency to buy brand loyalty and strength in the 2020s.

Over the last years, environmental issues have been at the forefront of the global sustainability debate; and for good reasons. There has been a strong focus on emissions, plastic waste, water, pollution, energy and the transition towards a circular economy. The rise of climate change, both literally and figuratively, has furthermore meant that social issues have taken a backseat.

Now, in the year 2020, our world has been shaken, stirred, and woken up to some harsh realities. Health and social issues have dominated the world these last months, with an increased focus on the responsibility of governments, companies and individuals, in times of crisis and social injustice.


First of all, we have entered a global health-crisis that is having wide-spread implications for our economy, societies, businesses, and most likely also the way we interact for a long time. The global spread of COVID-19 has put immense pressure on everyone. From health care and essential workers who are fighting to keep others alive, to people who lost a loved one and those who are dealing with new challenges around their jobs, homes and livelihoods.   

Despite this being a global crisis, people are experiencing the effects of COVID-19 in the context of their own circumstances, local neighbourhoods and families. This is causing a shift to a more local and nationalistic mindset. COVID-19 is furthermore amplifying issues around wealth, privilege, discrimination and the right to health care. As a result, we expect a rise in social justice debates, including areas like employment, housing, health care and mental health. We also expect a growing divide in politics and public debate. The fact that we are spending more time at home now, also means we are engaging more in social media. This allows our algorithms to spur our “different realities” even more, leading to increased social conflict.

No one knows yet what a post-COVID-19 world will look like and what it will mean for businesses, brands and consumer behaviour. What we do know however is that the status quo-way of managing modern society has been far more fragile than we expected.


This brings us secondly to Black Lives Matter. The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 has furthermore spurred massive protests in hundreds of cities in the United States and across all countries in the world. Black Lives Matter (BLM) was founded in 2013 in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer and has now grown into a global organisation and movement whose mission it is to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities. (Scroll down to find resources for white and non-black people of colour on how to become allies of the Black Lives Matter movement, and for white people to better understand white privilege.) 

The fact that citizens are standing up for social justice and that protest participation has never been this high around the world, shows the frustration and desire for change among individuals. Activism is no longer a form of expression and engagement by a small group in society. It has become a mainstream activity to affect the public debate and to demand change. We have seen this in the climate movement over the past few years, but now in 2020 it has sparked a new wave of social injustice protests around systemic discrimination, corruption, elections and more. 


All these developments in 2020 have created high tensions on a government level. As some governments fail to provide reliable healthcare, safe neighbourhoods or equal opportunities; people are starting to turn to other stakeholders. It is becoming more evident for regular citizens that governments might not have what it takes to solve the problems that lie ahead. Even in more traditional social democratic countries, this is becoming a reality. 

People are looking for well-functioning alternatives in healthcare, education and safety, and companies are always looking for business opportunities. This could provide a win-win situation where social issues are put at heart. The main obstacle to such a development would be that companies usually shy away from taking a political stance. Companies are often afraid to touch upon sensitive public debates and choose a political side overall. Let’s take BLM as an example. We are seeing a lot of engagement and support from companies, but at the same time a lot of these efforts are failing to create real change. Most importantly, BLM is a human rights issue, more than it is a political issue. Being pro-human rights is undebatable. Whereas turning that into being e.g. pro- or anti- housing, defence, health care or climate action becomes much more political for brands. The challenge is often not to support human rights, but it is to create real change.


Daring to take on societal challenges and actually providing solutions to these will be increasingly important in the current landscape. Individuals are not just looking for support and examples in the private sector, they are also increasingly starting to understand their power as consumers. Not engaging in the public debate or practicing what you preach, could make consumers actively choose not to buy from you as a company. This is especially true for the younger generation, who is growing in size and purchasing power. 

As Black Lives Matter activist Nupol Kiazolu, who is also a Gen Z, puts it: “Yes, we want to see companies funding causes against social injustice. But we also want these businesses pushing elected officials to adopt policies that will result in real change, not giving money to those politicians who are not helping us despite being elected to represent the people. The Z-generation is pushing companies into speaking out. But that is only a first step. We can also take you out of business by boycotting you”.

 An Edelman survey in 2018 showed that 64% of consumers reward businesses that engage in activism. However, many brands that have taken a stand against racism (e.g. Nike, L’Oréal) have been widely criticised for their lack of internal representation and showing proof of wanting to contribute to real change. Although consumers appreciate companies combining purpose and profit, consumers are not ignorant to this kind of behaviour, and neither are investors. Earning trust for brand activism today is not only about engaging in social media or donating resources, it about our practicing what we preach in our cultures and operations.


The year 2020 has speeded up the challenges for companies claiming that they are purpose-driven but actually are not. Consumers will find out now rather than later if they live up to their promises or not. Simply talking about purpose or what you as a brand ‘hope to achieve’ in a visionary future will hardly be enough anymore. The only way forward is to be a humble part of the solution starting today.

More and more people wonder what actions corporations are taking to fight real-life problems. The breakdown of a current system creates the potential to redesign it, but talk is cheap. Actions are the new currency to buy brand loyalty and strength in the 2020s.

Welcome to the Action Economy.


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