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Building a progressive company can sometimes feel at odds with growth and revenue goals. But some companies are doing it and doing it well.
Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard gave up ownership of the company in an effort to fight climate change (Photo courtesy of Getty)
As the founder of Thigh Society, a Canadian company that makes anti-chafing undergarments for customers of all shapes and sizes, Marnie Rabinovitch Consky is dedicated to dismantling negative body stereotypes. In fact, she ’s so committed to this goal that she refuses to charge plus-size customers more, even if producing a plus-size garment is more expensive to make than a straight-size one.
“We don’t make any price distinctions between plus-size and straight-size products,” she says. “I can’t imagine anything more demeaning than doing that. I would sooner take a hit to the business than pass that [cost] along to the customer, because we want to normalize all bodies and feeling good in your skin, and rejecting all the beauty standards that diet culture constantly imposes on us.”
Consky is not alone in trying to build a company where progressive values govern business operations. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade earlier this year, companies including Apple, Netflix, Disney, J.P. Morgan, Levi Strauss and Microsoft responded by expanding their health benefits to protect employees’ right to reproductive healthcare. And in September, Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia, announced that he, his spouse and their two adult children would be giving away their ownership in the $3-billion company in an attempt to fight climate change. Going forward, 100 per cent of voting stock will be owned by the Patagonia Purpose Trust, which was “created to protect the company’s values,” according to a statement on its website, and 100 per cent of the nonvoting stock will be owned by the Holdfast Collective, “a non-profit dedicated to fighting the environmental crisis and defending nature.”
While these decisions are intended to make the world a better place, they’re also good business. According to U.S. asset management firm Mercer, “employers are increasingly expected to have DEI-related policies and to actively tackle inequity in the workplace, through pay, benefits, health provisions and other channels. These expectations are not only coming from employees but also from a wide range of other stakeholders, including regulators, investors, customers, suppliers and the media. Firms that get this right will benefit from staff who have a diversity of thought [and] will also enhance their reputations and gain an advantage in the growing war for talent. Those that fail to promote social well-being will see their reputations diminished.”
Consky founded Thigh Society in 2008, well before Instagram existed and body-positive language was mainstream. But even back then, she knew she wanted to “build a brand that was diverse and inclusive,” she says. “And I wanted to make sure that we weren’t stigmatizing anyone’s particular body for having thigh chafe.” So, she began using a mix of plus-size and straight-size models of different ages and races on the company’s website and in its marketing materials, while also steadily increasing sizing. (Right now, her products come in sizes extra-small to 6x.) And she applied the same lens when it came to hiring.
Marnie Rabinovitch Consky is working to dismantle negative body stereotypes through her company, Thigh Society (Photo courtesy of Thigh Society)
“I don ’t know that I deliberately set out to only hire women, but I definitely was gravitating towards hiring women,” she says. “I felt that with the conversation around chafing and how diet culture speaks to women specifically, it was important to have [people] on the team who could relate. And to this day, I have a team that is almost entirely comprised of women.”
This phenomenon isn’t restricted to start-ups and smaller companies. KPMG Canada has been integrating diversity, equity and inclusion-focused policies into every aspect of its business for several years. In 2014 the firm established its Executive Inclusion & Diversity Council. At the time, its goal was to establish a national DEI strategy and drive engagement at the office level, according to Rob Davis, chair of the board and chief inclusion, diversity and equity officer. However, over the years, the company’s strategy “has evolved from focusing on increasing the diversity of our employees and partners to ensuring that with a diverse workforce, we all feel included and are comfortable bringing our whole selves to work,” he says.
Many of the company’s publicly released goals are related to staffing; KPMG Canada still employs proportionally fewer women and people of colour at the partner level, so it is working toward having 33 per cent of partners be women and 26 per cent be people of colour by October 2025. It has also established goals to increase the number of employees who are Black, Indigenous and people with disabilities—and invested in dedicated recruiters for those groups. Davis says it has also established “multi-year action plans for Indigenous reconciliation, anti-racism, and accessibility.”
Still, it can be a challenge for companies to maintain the progressive values they use to build their brands, especially as they grow. We’ve recently seen several high-profile examples of companies that falter when their stated values don ’t align with their actual business practices. In the mid-2010s, the ‘girl boss’ became the model of career success for a certain segment of millennial woman (feminist, ambitious, high-achieving). But as Guardian columnist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett pointed out earlier this year, in reality, the girl boss was a “pinkwashed hypercapitalist career queen.” As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg ’s 2013 self-empowerment manifesto Lean In advised, the girl boss achieved success by learning to navigate traditional business environments, something that requires a certain level of power and privilege to do. And, unfortunately, once she’d climbed the ranks, she sometimes ended up replicating the same harmful dynamics she had personally overcome. Just ask the original girl boss, e-commerce entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso, who literally wrote the book on the topic—2014 ’s Girlboss—and was hit with two lawsuits the following year alleging the company had a toxic office culture and discriminated against pregnant people and people who needed workplace accommodations. More recently, accusations of racism, toxic company cultures and exploitative business practices also plagued other girl bosses, including Audrey Gelman, founder of women-only coworking space The Wing, and Emily Weiss, The Hills actor-turned-business icon who founded cosmetics company Glossier.
At Thigh Society, newly mainstream conversations about identity have inspired changes in the company ’s marketing strategy.
“As gender diversity has entered more conversations and we see more and more individuals identifying as non-binary…we’d like to have those people reflected in our marketing,” Consky says. “I don’t know that this is necessarily a challenge; I think it’s an opportunity to continue on our mission of showcasing diverse bodies, as well as racial diversity, age diversity and different abilities.”
And it’s not just marketing, of course. According to Consky, she’s very aware that Thigh Society “need[s] to make sure that our marketing and the way we talk about people’s bodies match what we promote on the outside.”
At KPMG, Davis is most concerned with maintaining momentum, especially when world events, including a war, looming recession and higher cost of living, might distract employees from the slow and steady work of building a more equitable business. But, he says, the company has committed to keeping their DEI work on everyone ’s radar through communication.
“We communicate regularly to our people about our progress, and it ’s a regular part of our town halls, our recruitment and retention strategy, and even our client relationships,” he says, pointing out that this level of communication requires executive buy-in. “One of the reasons we’ve had success with our [DEI] strategy comes from the fact that it’s supported and driven by those at the highest ranks of the firm. You need to have buy-in from the very top to ensure our strategy has traction and becomes embedded in our culture.”
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