Back in February, I tried to predict the top sustainability issue of 2013. My guess – the ethical supply chain – has certainly been hitting headlines. But I didn’t come close to predicting another issue which seems to have been rising up everyone’s agenda this year.
In a word: sex.
So far this year, an online petition against bare breasts in The Sun newspaper has received over 100,000 signatures, and UK retailer The Co-op has introduced measures against “overt sexual images” in magazines. Shopping chains have been criticised for the “pornification” of high streets, Disney has come under fire for the sexualisation of cartoon characters and tech companies including Google and Microsoft have been called upon to block searches for illegal content.
Many of these campaigns cite the need to protect impressionable children from sexualised content. But they are more than just Mary Whitehouse-style moral crusades, or hysterical “Twitterstorms”.
It seems to me that these controversies are part of a bigger shift in opinion over how far corporate responsibility stretches. Companies are increasingly held responsible for all aspects of customers’ welfare, from product recycling to healthy eating. When it comes to sexual content, arguments such as “it’s up to consumers” and “it’s only irony!” are no longer enough.
No More Page 3 campaigners at Legoland. Source: The Guardian
Just as companies are targeted for sourcing from illegal loggers and unsafe factories, they are held responsible for implicitly supporting sexualised and sexist content. The No More Page 3 campaign against The Sun targeted toymaker Lego for advertising in the paper. At the even more unpleasant end of the spectrum, brands such as Nissan UK and WestHost pulled adverts from Facebook after they were shown appearing alongside pages containing supposedly humorous content endorsing rape and domestic violence created by the site’s users.
The lesson for businesses is clear. In the eyes of campaigners and increasingly the public, guilt by association is still guilt. Companies that fail to respond to concerns over sexual content risk more than just their family-friendly reputations – they are in danger of losing credibility as “sustainable” companies entirely. And that’s definitely not sexy.