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Virtue signalling

Should companies have a conscience?

Transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney hawking Bud Light

Say what you like about Nigel Farage and his spat with Coutts, says Adrian Wooldridge in Bloomberg, but it’s a joy to see him “taking a wrecking ball to corporate wokery”. Ever since the “twin shocks” of 2016 – Brexit and Trump – and then the murder of George Floyd in 2020, companies have taken it upon themselves to adopt a (generally progressive) position on cultural issues. The head of pharmaceuticals giant Merck said it was vital for firms to “stabilise society”; JP Morgan boss Jamie Dimon talked about businesses, government and civil society working together with “common purpose”. Seemingly overnight, management consultancies, business schools and even accountancies ditched the age-old capitalist aim of maximising shareholder value, and instead began talking about building a “more just and equitable world”.

All this has produced the “opposite effect from the one intended” – it has alienated large chunks of the population. A Bud Light promotion featuring a transgender influencer sparked a boycott that saw US sales plummet by a quarter. Disney was pilloried for hypocrisy after taking a firm line on American racism while also filming a movie in Xinjiang, the Chinese province infamous for its persecution of Uighur Muslims. Some companies obviously cannot avoid tackling certain hot-button issues – Facebook and freedom of speech, say. But there is a “world of difference” between engaging with politics because you have no choice, and “deliberately beating a beehive with a stick”. Call me old-fashioned, but I think companies are much better off staying out of politics and sticking to what they’re good at: making money.