Corporate Courage

06/16/2017 09:14 am ET
Coe Burchfield

I’ve been a critic of capitalism. Especially the corporate capitalism that leaves masses of people in poverty while a handful of billionaires own the same amount of money as half the world – literally. Recent stats show that CEOs are making 500 times what their workers make…which means CEOs often make more money in an hour than their workers make in a month.

So that’s the ugly side of capitalism.

But there are some redemptive things happening inside the belly of the beast that are worth celebrating. Airbnb has made a commitment to house 100,000 refugees over the next 5 years. That’s pretty incredible. We’ve seen companies catch the courage and divest from things like the Dakota Pipeline in support of the water protectors at Standing Rock.

And of course there is Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream. I’ve had the privilege of teaming up with Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s. He’s a good friend to have, for many reasons. We teamed up on a project called “Jesus, Bombs, and Ice Cream” that’s all about building a world with fewer bombs and more ice cream.

They’ve always been a creative bunch. And I’m not just talking about when they released the malted milk ball ice cream called “Schweddy Balls.”

When they started the company, they set a maximum wage scale of 5:1 to ensure that no one in the company made more than 5 times what someone else made. For the brownies in their Fudge Brownie, they teamed up with Greyston Bakery in New York, a missional company that practices “open-hiring,” intentionally hiring folks who have had difficult lives and challenges to employment. Ben & Jerry’s was the first corporate sponsor of Occupy Wall Street, and has always created specialty flavors to support great causes like peace, environmentalism, and racial justice, among others. One their more recent flavors is Empower Mint, and money from sales goes to the movement for black lives.

This past month I had the privilege of conspiring with LUSH Cosmetics as they launched an entire campaign aimed at abolishing the death penalty. They weren’t the first to join the movement. Starbucks featured the book Just Mercy in their stores, a memoir written by the legendary death penalty lawyer Bryan Stevenson…a strong wink at the movement to end capital punishment. And there have been other corporate partnerships in the movement for prison reform, racial justice, and death penalty abolition.

But LUSH took things to a whole new level. In their 200 stories, they set up prominent window and store displays where they gathered thousands of signatures, gave out #HaltAllExecutions stickers, and engaged people in dialogue about capital punishment. They released a new bright orange “bath bomb” branded with an equal sign with a slash through it, representing the campaign message: “Death doesn’t equal justice.” They had other products too – lotions that had the photos of folks wrongfully convicted, the sales of which went to support groups like Witness to Innocence, Death Penalty Focus, and the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. And all sorts of helpful information on their website.

Shane Claiborne
Shane Claiborne

Last I heard they were hoping to raise over $150,000 for the movement to abolish the death penalty.

It’s nothing new for LUSH to take a stand on controversial issues. They’re another one of those companies that has justice in their DNA.

But we need more corporate courage. Wouldn’t it be nice if justice wasn’t exceptional, but normal?

We need companies to use their platforms to amplify the message of justice. We need them to divest from injustice. We need companies to get creative, take risks, and flex their muscles a little bit.

I was talking with a friend of mine who is on death row just after the state of Arkansas rushed to execute a record number of people (eight people in ten days because their lethal injection drugs were about to expire). After celebrating the massive resistance to the assembly line of executions in Arkansas, and thankful for prominent voices like Johnny Depp and the Pope, we mused at how much more powerful the resistance would be if a few companies weighed in.

There was a glimpse of that in North Carolina last year as the state passed laws discriminating against sexual minorities. Entertainers like Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam cancelled concerts, and the NCAA and PayPal pulled business out of the state. Companies have power.

My friend on death row asked what would have happened if some of the businesses in Arkansas – Tyson, IBM, University of Arkansas, Hewlett Packard -- had threatened to divest from the state if went forward with its executions? And beyond Arkansas, what if some companies begin to put economic pressure on the handful of states that continue to execute?

Certainly we can’t wait on corporations to act. But we can invite them.

Companies listen to consumers. Or at least to our wallets. So let’s keep inviting them to be a part of the movement for a better world, and to have some courage to take a stand on things like the death penalty.

Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting for Ben & Jerry’s to be the next corporate sponsor of the movement…maybe with a new flavor. Death by chocolate, not by state?

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