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21st November 2014

Can individual morality affect corporate approaches to sensitive issues?

Lauren Wills asks if we really have the power to make companies retract their tasteless comments, or if indeed we actually care if it’s not aimed at us

Corporations entrench societal privilege by making it okay to discriminate against and attempt to normalise people suffering from mental health issues. When corporate giants such as Tesco and Asda put mental health patient Halloween costumes on sale, what they’re really saying is that it’s okay to laugh at this issue.

Whilst this is in the past, and both companies retracted the costumes, I was shocked when a year later, Wal-Mart (Asda’s parent company) introduced ‘fat girl’ Halloween costumes on its website. It is astounding how anyone would think this kind of labelling is acceptable. What’s frightening is the company’s lack of sensitivity when considering their influence over society.

I am not claiming that there was insufficient public outrage over both of these ‘hiccups’, but I think there’s a ‘sheep-mentality’ problem with society today where we don’t think for ourselves. We only revolt against the actions of corporations when an intelligent individual expresses that something is wrong, adequately explains why, and tells us why we should agree with them. Usually this is done over social media—we jump on the bandwagon and criticise corporate decisions until offensive statements are retracted, or in Asda’s case, until the costumes are removed. 

Some might argue in their brutal honesty that we sometimes do recognise that the acts of corporate giants are morally questionable, yet we choose to ignore them until it’s seen as socially acceptable to criticise them. For example, if you are not affected by mental illness at this moment in time, you are more likely to detach yourself from the issue and concentrate on your own life rather than spending time and energy standing up for a cause that doesn’t directly affect you.

If this is the case and society does recognise that certain acts are offensive to certain people, I would suggest we adopt a more altruistic approach. Mental illness can affect anyone without prior warning and without that individual doing anything to cause it. The World Health Organisation report that around 450 million people currently suffer from different mental disorders, making mental illness among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.

What’s worse is that nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help. To know that companies endorse and encourage stigma and discrimination either through intention or negligence is something we should all be personally standing up against.

It really can happen to anyone, and the fact that people are embarrassed or ashamed to get treatment is something we should all carry the weight of to ensure people are getting the help they need. Furthermore, not all cases of obesity are self-inflicted; there are myriad reasons why individuals become overweight, but there is such stigma attached to appearance, based around laziness and apathy, that people are made to feel marginalised at the hands of key market players.

In my opinion, keeping an open mind and an ‘anything could happen’ mentality allows us to really put ourselves in other people’s shoes, preventing us from disregarding others or making them feel inferior.

Whilst I love and appreciate the fact that companies rely on the support of the public (which does, to some degree, make them accountable for their mistakes) I think it’s important to recognise that we should be individually sensitive to issues such as mental health and insecurity before they become topical and someone writes an article about it.

It really does start with personal morality, sensitivity and compassion. One in three people are affected by mental health issues over their lifetime. 64 per cent of people in the UK are deemed overweight or obese. The quicker we grasp the realities of the statistics, the quicker we stop marginalising affected individuals. I am not denying that we should indeed promote a healthy society, but if we can recognise something is offensive and wrong personally, before we revolt collectively, our communities will be full of individuals sensitive to what others are going through which, pardon the cliché, really can make the world a better place.

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