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Corporate Brazil faces reckoning on racism after brutal killing

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João Alberto Silveira Freitas was beaten to death in the parking lot of a Carrefour supermarket in southern Brazil by two of the store’s security guards following an altercation inside the premises.

The killing of the black man by the white employees late last month in Porto Alegre triggered unrest across Brazil, including protests and vandalism — much of which was directed at French group Carrefour for its perceived inaction on racism over many years.

But the death has also prompted a broader reckoning of Brazil’s corporate sector. As protest movements, such as Black Lives Matter, gather steam and provoke change in companies across North America, Brazilian businesses have been accused of making little effort to address the imbalances in opportunities and income in one of the world’s most unequal nations.

Despite accounting for almost 60 per cent of the country’s 210m population, black Brazilians occupy less than 5 per cent of executive positions and 5 per cent of seats on company boards — and this representation has barely improved in the past decade. Black Brazilians, typically defined to include mixed-race citizens, also earn on average 50 per cent less than white Brazilians, according to the Centre for the Study of Labor Relations and Inequalities.

As incidents such as the killing of Silveira Freitas proliferate and echo through social media, companies that do not act on racism increasingly risk reprisals, ranging from boycotts to vandalism. The nation, meanwhile, must grapple with the fallout of the discontent.

Carrefour supermarkets across Brazil were targeted by anti-racism protesters following the killing © AP
A protest in a Carrefour store in Rio de Janeiro. The supermarket said sales were unaffected by blockades and an associated boycott © REUTERS

“We avoid places where we will be treated badly. I avoid consuming from renowned companies,” said Deisy Dias, a businesswoman from São Paulo, who says racism is an everyday occurrence for black Brazilians. She admits to growing increasingly impatient with the status quo.

“Boycotts don’t have enough scale to make the necessary impact. Burning the supermarkets — the more radical things — they will have a greater effect in the short term.”

Following Silveira Freitas’s death, Carrefour’s global chief executive Alexandre Bompard wrote his condolences on Twitter, calling the footage of the incident “unbearable”. In addition to a $5m fund to fight racism in Brazil, the company said black Brazilians would represent at least 50 per cent of annual new hires.

But the group — alongside many Brazilian companies — has been accused of acting too slowly and only providing superficial remedies that do not address the structural issues in the labour force. Following the death, Carrefour Brazil was this month removed from an index of companies with the best environmental, social and governance practice, run by S&P Dow Jones Indices and B3, a Brazilian stock exchange.

“Many companies are still thinking about racism superficially and need to start thinking institutionally,” said Daniel Teixeira, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Labour Relations and Inequalities.

“The black worker went from slavery to informal worker with no labour rights. Sadly, this discussion [over structural racism] is only happening because of a death at Carrefour.”

Raphael Vicente, co-ordinator of the Business Initiative for Racial Equality, points out that between 2000 and 2013, the number of black Brazilians in higher education almost quadrupled but this has still “not been reflected in their presence in large companies”.

“Before, they said there were not enough black Brazilians with higher education. But now there are and they are still not hiring. We call it ‘invisible walls’.”

Critics say Brazilian companies only react when incentivised to do so, such as in response to threats to withdraw investment over deforestation in the Amazon
Critics say Brazilian companies only react when incentivised to do so, such as in response to threats to withdraw investment over deforestation in the Amazon © Carl De Souza/AFP/Getty
Tributes to victims of the Brumadinho dam disaster last year near the iron ore mine where the collapse killed more than 250 people
Tributes to victims of the Brumadinho dam disaster last year near the iron ore mine where a collapse killed more than 250 people © Douglas Magno/AFP/Getty

Many believe there needs to be a strong financial incentive for companies to change, with analysts pointing to the example of the Amazon rainforest. Threats of divestment from international investors this year spurred a groundswell of support from corporate Brazil to protect the jungle from deforestation.

“Unfortunately, Brazilian companies only respond to events that hurt their value, like with [iron ore miner] Vale,” after the Brumadinho dam collapse last year, said Simone Pasianotto, chief economist at Reag Investimentos.

“We are still crawling on the issue of the responsibility of investors and companies on race. The investor needs to understand the opportunity for society’s gain and not just financial gain.”

Despite the lack of movement from the corporate sector, however, the issue is gaining political traction. Orlando Silva, a federal lawmaker, last month proposed legislation that would make businesses responsible for incidents of racism that occurred on their premises.

“We have to make responsible those who have responsibility. Companies cannot be allowed to get away with it for longer. No more blaming security guards and parking attendants,” he said.

A handful of companies are attempting change. Ambev, the local subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch InBev, is recruiting more black Brazilians to traineeship programmes, and cosmetics group Avon has pledged to ensure black Brazilians make up at least 50 per cent of its workforce before the end of this decade.

“[But] the majority of companies act like the majority of the population, which is to deny the existence of racism in Brazil: ‘If it does not affect me, it doesn’t exist. If it doesn’t impact my profits, then all good’ is their thinking,” said Luciano Cequeira, a public policy researcher at the Rio de Janeiro State University.

“The only thing companies fear is losses and, when well organised, boycotts can do this to supermarkets.”

In the case of Carrefour, however, an announced boycott quickly ran out of steam and the company said sales were not affected. Some fear, however, a lack of action from companies will only fuel deeper discontent.

“Racism has always been there, but we are now sick of being silent,” said Tatiana Carvalho Costa, a teacher from Belo Horizonte.

“Companies will not take action if they are not disturbed. If we can’t stop consuming from them, we will start complaining. If we do it massively, they will have to act.”



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Analysis

Can plant-based milk beat conventional dairy?

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Plant-based milk brands are churning up the global dairy business, with a surge in sales, investment, and new products coming to market. The plant derived dairy trade is now worth an estimated $17bn worldwide.

Growing consumer demand has boosted investment. According to data firm Dealroom, venture capital funding across the plant-based dairy and egg sector has skyrocketed, from $64m in 2015 to $1.6bn in 2020.

The world’s biggest food company, Nestle, recently launched its first international plant-based dairy brand, a cow’s milk substitute made from yellow peas. Wonder will come in a variety of flavours, competing with established brands like Oatly oat-based milk. Founded in Sweden in the 1990s, that company is now valued at around $15bn. Demand for alternatives to soya, which once dominated the dairy free market, continues to escalate.

In the west, sales for other plant-based milks, including oat, cashew, coconut, hemp, and other seeds overtook soya back in 2014. Since then, they’ve raced ahead to be worth almost three times as much as soya products, with a combined projected value of more than $5bn in sales by 2022.

Advocates argue that plant-based production emits less greenhouse gas than cattle, making it the way forward to help feed the world and curb global warming. But dairy groups are fighting back with their own sustainability campaigns. And cow’s milk is hard to beat when it comes to naturally occurring nutrients, like protein, vitamins and minerals.

The average 100 millilitre glass of cow’s milk contains three grammes of protein, compared to 2.2 grammes in pea milk and just one gramme in oat-based substitutes.

Dairy producers have also won a legal bid, preventing vegan competitors in the EU from calling their products milk and yoghurt. Despite their growing popularity, plant-based brands are a long way from displacing conventional milk products. Their current $17bn turnover is still a drop in the pail, compared with the traditional cattle-based dairy trade, which is worth an estimated $650bn worldwide.



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'It’s more than sport – every day we are fighting for our rights to be equal’

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French pro basketball player and podcaster Diandra Tchatchouang on her role beyond the court



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Emily Dean on how allyship amplifies the female experience on film

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When I was six years old, I decided to be an artist. When I was 12, I decided to be a filmmaker. And instead of saying no, you can’t do that, or it’s not possible, my mum bought me a video camera.

After several years of working in the industry, I’m working with a female director for the first time. And it’s been such a gratifying experience. Women express leadership in different ways. Maybe you don’t have to be the loudest person in the room. But you can have great ideas.

And the best thing about being mentored by women and being a mentor to women is that make friends with women.

There’s something so powerful the women coming alongside other women, especially in a group setting. Because it means that you can and back each other up. You can support each other’s decisions, and you can amplify each other’s voices.

It’s about seeing yourself in your work. Seeing some part of yourself reflected is really gratifying. It’s also important that we speak up for female characters. I want to see girls and women on screen who have the whole cacophony of experience of what it’s like to be female.

I want to see their flaws. I want to feel their struggles. I want to see their joy. That is so important to making a character feel real. And it took me a little while to settle into myself and realise, if the characters I like to come up with are not your everyday run of the mill characters you see in animation, that’s fine. Because this is who I am.

When you walk into a story room, when you’re working on a film, you have to leave your ego at the door. I think that can be interpreted like keep your ego out of the work. But I’d also say for women who are maybe more shy that leaving your ego at the door means you walk in. And your job is to focus on what’s best for the story and for the film.

The story needs you. The film needs you, and it needs your best ideas. It won’t thrive unless you speak up.



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