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Op-Ed | Should Companies Take a Political Stand?

If we expect companies to take sides on divisive issues — and only patronise those we deem as having a good conscience — it could mean the end of agnostic consumerism, argues Simon Collins.    
L: Apple employees attend a 2015 Pride march in San Francisco, R: Starbucks flies the Pride flag to celebrate the Supreme Court's ruling on marriage equality | Source: Apple/Starbucks
By
  • Simon Collins

NEW YORK, United States — A couple of months ago, newly installed Land's End chief executive Federica Marchionni came under fire. The reason: Marchionni — a former executive at Dolce & Gabbana, hired to give the khaki-peddling American brand some edge — featured an interview between herself and feminist icon Gloria Steinem in the company's spring catalogue. The conversation didn't even hint at the topic of abortion, but Steinem's views on the issue are no secret. Anti-abortion activists leapt into action calling for a Land's End boycott. Marchionni eventually issued an apology on the company's Facebook page, only to find the brand's pro-choice customers also angered and vocal, putting the executive in a lose-lose situation.

Politics and fashion have typically had a distant relationship. True, the mostly liberal American fashion industry, notably Vogue editor Anna Wintour, has done its part to support the Democratic candidates in the past two presidential elections. But when push comes to shove, it's undoubtedly easier to thrill about dressing the First Lady than it is to take a principled stand that some of your customers might not like. And at this highly polarised point in history — see the heated, rather surreal American election — I think all brands, including fashion, must ask themselves: do we need to stand for something beyond profit?

It’s a sticky issue. There is the view that public companies are required to only stand for shareholder profits and beating last quarter’s earnings. Neutrality is safe and therefore profitable. As Michael Jordan once put it when asked why he wouldn’t endorse an African-American Democratic candidate: “Republicans buy sneakers too.” I wonder if he feels the same in this current climate. As Land’s End found, trying to please everyone can be bad for business. And that may be why things are starting to change. Look at the growing list of companies, people, and even other states boycotting North Carolina and Mississippi for their newly passed highly regressive anti-LGBT laws.

Perhaps if we expect companies to make their voices heard on divisive issues — and only patronise those we deem as having a good conscience — it could mean the end of agnostic consumerism.

Taking a corporate stand isn’t new. One illustrious example is Patagonia. Led by its admirable founder Yvon Chouinard, the privately held, 43-year-old company has long pushed environmental issues to the fore and isn’t afraid of a fight. In 1990, when the outdoors brand was targeted by the Christian Action Council for giving money to Planned Parenthood, Chouinard said he’d give an extra $100 to the non-profit organisation for every campaigner that stood outside their stores. He certainly alienated some people, but he chose to stand up for his beliefs anyway.

Recently, even some multibillion-dollar, public companies are refusing to remain on the sidelines. Last summer, after Donald Trump made racist remarks about Mexicans, Macy’s ended an 11-year partnership, refusing to sell his merchandise. Chief executive Terry Lundgren explained that the store didn’t want to carry merchandise associated with any political candidates, but I have to wonder if Trump hadn’t been openly bigoted, would his shirts and ties still be on Macy’s racks?

Similarly, in recent years, both Starbucks and Apple have suggested that if you have a problem with same-sex marriage then you should feel free to sell your shares and buy someone else's. They evidently felt that the risk of offending some sectors of the population was less important than standing for something in which their employees, customers and by assumption shareholders believe. A recent study found that a higher percentage of young consumers would buy from Apple when they were informed of the company's political position compared to those who did not know of their position. Like many other New Yorkers, I tend to favour independent coffee shops, but when I heard Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz's comments in support of gay marriage I felt better disposed to Starbucks. (I may even have had one of their espressos.) That sounds like good business-sense to me. But, of course, it does take some backbone to stand up for what you think is right while not being able to predict the fall-out ahead.

The NRA publishes a list of anti-gun corporations, which I consider a shopping list.

While all of the above might be heartening to witness, we have to ask what’s behind the shift — a genuine moral compass or a calculated business strategy targeting select markets? After all, many companies that appear to act with a conscience in one market still sell in others with morally bankrupt regimes. Is it better than doing nothing? Perhaps the result of companies making their opinions known will be consumers who are more informed about who they’re giving their money to?

Which brings us to our responsibility as consumers. In my occasional speeches, I sometimes tell people that it’s their own fault when they complain about some low-price fashion companies and their irresponsible practices. Your dollar is your endorsement, so all of us share a responsibility to spend wisely. Even if a company doesn’t tell you which causes it supports, you can do your homework and find out. The information is right in the palm of your hand if you care to look. The NRA, for instance, publishes a list of anti-gun corporations, which I personally consider a shopping list. Perhaps if we expect companies to make their voices heard on divisive issues — and only patronise those we deem as having a good conscience —it could mean the end of agnostic consumerism.

Simon Collins is the former dean of fashion at Parsons The New School For Design and the founder of FashionCultureDesign.com.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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