Should your company take a stand? Conventional wisdom vs. reality in 2021

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

By Michelle van Schouwen

Conventional wisdom is that small businesses are better off never taking a stand on controversial issues. “It’s tough enough making a profit without alienating prospective customers,” has been the thinking.

In light of 2021’s many serious political, health, social justice, and environmental concerns, perhaps it’s a good time to take another look at this issue. For many small companies, the conventional wisdom still stands. Just stick to business, skip the politicized and hot-button issues, and all will be well. Also, businesses are well advised, in general, to stay away from taking stands that may prove to be illegal or unconstitutional, unless the owner really wants to spend time in court defending a principle. Then comes the oh-so-2020s question about hanging a candidate’s flag or similarly divisive banner in your doorway – you’ll earn the loyalty of some percentage of potential customers and the ire of some other percentage. (Would the candidate do that for YOU?) One restaurant owner near us attended (and publicized that he attended) the January 6th insurrection. The tourists still flock in for his deep-fried seafood, but some of the locals stay away. If your convictions are very deep, and you can afford to lose business, go for it. For the rest of us, perhaps consider directing your business activism to less inflammatory issues.

Following are some reasons small businesses may want to take a stand, issues they may or may not want to put their muscle behind, and some considerations in doing so:

-Starting with the easiest one: Taking a stand for literacy or child or animal welfare, or supporting another generally popular cause, is a great place to start. Most people will be happy that you, say, give a percentage of profits to the local animal shelter or to a fund for healthcare.

-Addressing key local issues by providing financial or other support is often doable without losing business. Supporting housing or clothing for the unhoused, cleaning up a local waterway, or helping an ailing association get back on its feet is commendable. In these divided times, someone will surely object to pretty much any stance you take, but if you’ve assessed that risk, you should be all right.

-I consider Black Lives Matter a really important issue. I also recognize that, in many communities, the battle lines have been drawn between support for the police and support for people of color. Be mindful of the ways you represent and support your position (consider vetting what you plan to say and do with people you trust) and know that some people will appreciate your statements and actions, while others will boycott your company.

-Environmental and climate change issues are critical. Depending on your region, your active support for sustainability could build your business. Action statements such as avoiding the use of pollution-intensive techniques equipment, or ending your relationship with disposable, “junk”, and single-use products and premiums are a start. Using cleaner energy for your business activities is a win-win. I believe that more and more people will choose companies that steward the environment. My own marketing company focused on building market share for clients with sustainable, environmentally positive products and services. My work now focuses on slowing climate change. Some people think I’m focusing on a political sham or a lost cause, but that’s okay.

-What your company produces makes a difference in the stands you can take without losing business. Supporting firearms rights may work for a gun shop, but is in my opinion a risky move for a pizza parlor. (I’m thinking of one in my area that has lost customers because of lobby posters flaunting semi-automatic rifles.)

-Some businesses declare a position by the very virtue of what they do. An organic clothing store, a vegan market, a religious bookstore, or a political gear shop for one party or another, all make a statement every day. Their customers or clients likely agree with the company’s values, and so that works.

-When standing up for an issue, consider whether you are being thoughtful, helpful, and persuasive, or (deliberately or not) rude and divisive. It’s important to truly know your reason for taking a stand. What is your actual purpose? Are you supporting your community? Building business for yourself? Following your conscience? Expressing your indignation with the wrongs of the world? What is the result likely to be? Your company, your employees, and your community deserve your best, so make sure your motives and your actions are worthy of all that matters to you.


Michelle van Schouwen is principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See Q5 For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc. of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her work on climate crisis mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.

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