As business owners and nonprofit leaders, it’s so important these days to recognize the ways in which our organizations still operate within colonial systems.
This is especially true when you think about how the United States was built, and how Indigenous communities have been deeply impacted by many of the colonial practices we uphold as standard operating procedures.
But why is this recognition, and subsequent action, so crucial?
By understanding the impact of colonization on Indigenous people, we can ensure that the ways in which we operate our organizations in America are infused with mutual respect. We can also ensure that, moving forward, we’re fostering bridges rather than walls.
Below, explore how colonialism has shaped entrepreneurship and commerce and identify actionable steps that organizations can take to acknowledge and rectify their roles in this complex legacy.
Colonialism’s Impact on American Business Values and Practices
One of the most glaring impacts of colonialism on modern entrepreneurship is the relentless pursuit of constant growth, which mirrors the expansionist ambitions of colonial powers in the past.
This growth-centric mindset frequently prioritizes shareholder profits over employee well-being and environmental responsibility. It reflects a time when colonizers seized Indigenous lands and resources without consideration for ecological balance or the rights of tribal nations.
The legacy of colonialism extends beyond profit margins.
It is also deeply ingrained in the power dynamics and structures prevalent in many of the organizations we know and patronize. The hierarchical nature of most organizations, top-down decision-making processes, and the limited agency afforded to individuals all draw parallels to colonialist systems. Decision-making remains concentrated at the top, creating a disconnect between those in leadership positions, those performing the work, and those affected by the consequences of those decisions.
This disconnect mirrors the detachment of colonizers from the lived realities of the colonized populations.
How Businesses and Nonprofits Can Acknowledge Their Roles in Colonization
So what should a socially conscious business or nonprofit do?
First up, it’s time for businesses to get real.
This involves taking a close and honest look at internal structures, policies and values to assess if they actively promote equal opportunities and sustainable practices.
Education plays a vital role in this process. Business leaders should create spaces for learning and open dialogue about the history of colonization and its ongoing impact on Indigenous communities and the broader society.
Nonprofits should also make systemic changes that undo past unfair practices. This can be achieved by:
- Restructuring to share power more equally
- Sourcing materials responsibly
- Creating a horizontal leadership style that emphasizes reciprocity and trust
The following examples share how organizations are using their influence and resources to reckon with the history of colonization.
Organizations and Businesses Addressing the Effects of Colonization
In the more than 40 years since its founding, Patagonia has become a symbol for how to use businesses to influence social good.
“We aim to make the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, and perhaps most important, inspire solutions to the environmental crisis,” Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard once said.
As an accredited and founding member of the Fair Labor Association, Patagonia has made the move to have the Earth as its only shareholder. The company also advocates for environmental responsibility and acknowledges the Indigenous lands on which it operates. As a member of 1% for the Planet, the outdoor retailer commits 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment.
To date, the initiative has resulted in $140 million in cash from Patagonia alone given to domestic and international grassroots environmental groups making a difference in their communities.
2. The Body Shop
In the cosmetics industry, The Body Shop is an innovator with a long-standing commitment to ethical sourcing.
The company’s Community Fair Trade program, established in 1987, helps suppliers gain market access and invest in social and environmental projects that benefit their communities while ensuring fair wages and good working conditions.
“Under our Community Fair Trade program, we source natural ingredients like shea butter from Ghana, tea tree oil from Kenya, and mango seed oil from India while ensuring that local workers are paid fairly and that the environment is protected,” said Harmeet Singh, The Body Shop’s vice president of marketing ecommerce and product.
The Body Shop has sourced shea butter from the Tungteiya Women’s Association in Northern Ghana since 1994, providing financial independence to women in rural areas. The company also sourced 400 tons of recycled plastic for product packaging from marginalized waste pickers in India in 2021—offering a fair price, steady income, and better working conditions in an informal sector that’s often volatile and discriminatory.
3. Who Gives a Crap
Who Gives A Crap is a small Australian social enterprise that donates 50% of its profits to help build toilets for those in need. The brand sells 100% recycled toilet paper and offers bamboo toilet paper, paper towels and tissues.
The company also strives to mitigate deforestation and improve sanitation for millions of people in the developing world.
4. Running Strong for American Indian Youth
Founded by Lakota Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, Running Strong for American Indian Youth is a nonprofit organization that aims to create a brighter future for American Indian youth by investing in their health, culture and identity.
Through its programming, Running Strong for American Indian Youth helps provide clean running water, organic community gardens, emergency utility and home repair assistance, and cultural and language revitalization.
The nonprofit also invests in the future of Native youth through education and mentorship.
5. Eighth Generation
Eighth Generation is a Native-owned and operated company aiming to redefine Native art in the marketplace. Anchored in the tagline “Inspired Natives, not “Native-inspired,” Eighth Generation builds business capacity among cultural artists while setting a new standard for Indigenous art. This mission sets them apart in an industry plagued by cultural appropriation and colonial erasure.
6. Māori Television
Māori Television, a New Zealand television network, plays a critical role in revitalizing te reo Māori, the Indigenous language of the Māori people, who were suppressed during colonial times. A research project exploring the impact of Māori Television on te reo Māori shows that the broadcaster is playing a key role in the revitalization of the language.
A 2016 study found a 30% increase in understanding Māori culture and receptivity toward te reo among non-Māori can be attributed to Māori Television. The study also found that the network contributed to an 11% increase in te reo language ability among all Māori.
By broadcasting predominantly in the Māori language, the network has helped lead a linguistic and cultural renaissance—fostering pride in Māori identity.
7. Luzene Hill
Luzene Hill, a member of the Eastern Band Cherokee, uses her art to draw attention to the issue of violence against Indigenous women, a problem that has deep roots in the history of colonization.
“My main idea was to bring these issues out of the shadows and into a conversation,” Luzene Hill said in an interview. “Having work on this topic, and work that is not so brutally vivid in presenting the idea—it makes the exhibition a safe place to talk about your own experience or have a dialogue about it … that’s what I’ve found every time I exhibit.”
Her installations create safe spaces for dialogue and healing, enabling a community reckoning with its past and proactive engagement with its future.
8. Decolonizing Wealth Project
The Decolonizing Wealth Project is a philanthropic initiative that uses its funds to heal, empower, and uplift Indigenous communities from the ails of colonization through radical reparative giving and storytelling.
Founded by Lumbee philanthropist Edgar Villanueva, the Decolonizing Wealth Project directs capital to Indigenous-led organizations working to combat systemic inequities and support community-led solutions.
As we can see, colonization is a complex and often difficult topic that affects all of us, but especially Indigenous people, in unique ways.
All businesses and nonprofits have a responsibility to be aware of how they are complicit in colonialism both historically and in the present, and yours should actively engage with the Indigenous communities around you.
With this in mind, we are called to action by challenging ourselves and our organizations to recognize our role in perpetuating oppression as well as understanding the pain that has been inflicted upon Indigenous people throughout history.
By actively engaging with local Indigenous communities on decolonizing efforts, we can be part of the change that is needed now more than ever.
And if you have any ideas that can help our organization understand and admit its role in colonization, please let us know so we can keep moving forward with making our society more equitable for all.