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The Social Duty of Firms

On Monday, December 11, fashion company Zara faced backlash over a controversial ad campaign that mirrored the destruction in Gaza (Al Jazeera). The campaign featured statues with missing limbs, models covered in ash and surrounded by rubble, and mannequins wrapped in white sheets—identical to how Muslims care for the deceased. It was quickly removed after calls for a boycott of the retailer, with activists saying the images were insensitive and mocking the deaths and plight of Palestinians. On social media, users shared the campaign photos alongside war scenes and mothers holding their deceased children wrapped in the traditional burial shroud to highlight the resemblance. And protestors held walk-ins at Zara locations, holding shrouded child-size props. 

The company said the campaign was created before the latest onslaught of violence in Gaza and was “inspired by men’s tailoring from past centuries.” However, a Zara franchise owner hosted a campaign event for an ultra-right-wing Israeli politician in 2022. In 2021, the brand’s head designer sent Islamophobic messages to a Palestinian model for his advocacy for Gazans (Newsweek).

Intentional or not, the Zara incident raises the question of the social responsibility of companies and how to hold them accountable for their social and political failings. 

TAKE ACTION

• Boycott companies profiting from the genocide in Gaza and divest from Israeli financial institutions. 

• Call Congress to demand a ceasefire now and an end to the genocide in Gaza. 

• Support causes and organizations that uplift the community. 

• Consider what is the social responsibility of companies. Look into the brands and companies you frequent and financially support. Do their political stances, practices, and actions align with yours? Are there more equitable and ethical companies that you can shop at instead?

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Discussions on companies’ responsibility to social issues and consumers have been of considerable interest in recent years, with criticism targeting the lack of internal diversity, the exploitation of workers, unfair labor practices, and hollow statements of support and change. Such concerns have led to a growing demand for greater accountability, transparency, and cultural awareness, causing many companies to address social justice issues within their industries and issue statements on recent events. Following the 2020 civil unrest, we saw companies across different industries implementing—though later abandoning—DEI initiatives and being more vocal on social issues. In 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine elicited a public and corporate outcry, with even companies without direct ties to either country issuing public statements condemning Russia. 

The line between being a faceless, objective entity that simply offers a service and a curated brand that champions everyday people on top of offering a service was blurred before then.

The public is inundated with companies’ virtue signaling their support for *insert marginalized identity here* through their marketing, identity-centered products, and sometimes advocacy work. It has become so routine that one can tell what month it is by the racks of “black afros with a pick” shirts, the “celebrate AAPI heritage” collection of movies and shows, or the influx of rainbow window displays.

Clothing has been used to make political statements by the individuals who wear them, and politics has served as a marketing point for the designers who make them. From the sashes and pins worn by the suffragettes to the signature berets and leather jackets of the Black Panther Party, and from the red “Make America Great Again” hats worn by Trump supporters during his presidential campaign to the pink pussy hats worn during the 2017 Women’s March, we have seen how clothing ties to social issues. Fashion brands and designers have even used clothing and their platforms to explore climate change, immigration and refugee crises, capitalism, women’s rightsgun violence, and more. 

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Felecia Phillips Ollie DD (h.c.) is the inspiring leader and founder of The Equality Network LLC (TEN). With a background in coaching, travel, and a career in news, Felecia brings a unique perspective to promoting diversity and inclusion. Holding a Bachelor's Degree in English/Communications, she is passionate about creating a more inclusive future. From graduating from Mississippi Valley State University to leading initiatives like the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, Felecia is dedicated to making a positive impact. Join her journey on our blog as she shares insights and leads the charge for equity through The Equality Network.

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