• US consumers are calling on private businesses to take a political stance.
•David Mayer, a management professor at the University of Michigan, says this could be a good thing.
• It’s not just because of the current administration — Mayer says the moralization of society plays a part.
Even the private sector can’t seem to escape the contentious US political environment.
Just take a few incidents from the past year:
• Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank incurred massive flak for praising US President Donald Trump in February. The brand’s own top athletes, including basketball star Steph Curry, revolted. The CEO expressed his dismay over the firestorm, and Under Armour’s stock was subsequently downgraded, according to Forbes.
• Activists clamored for business leaders to quit Trump’s economic councils, to the point that #QuittheCouncil trended on Twitter. Several business leaders did resign, citing Trump’s controversial response to the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. Ultimately, reports indicate that the president preemptively dissolved his economic councils after learning that the members intended to flee en masse.
• According to CNN, New York-based advocates are pressuring JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman to do more to oppose the president.
• The #GrabYourWallet campaign organized boycotts against companies that do business with the president and his family. This resulted in Amazon getting caught in the middle when both Trump supporters and opponents threatened to boycott the retail giant.
• Activists pressured stores like Nordstrom to drop Ivanka Trump’s fashion line. The president took to Twitter to slam the retailer for its subsequent decision to stop carrying items from the brand. White House adviser Kellyanne Conway added more fuel to the fire when she potentially violated government ethics rules by encouraging people to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff.“
From the looks of it, a majority of Americans are just fine with pushing businesses into the political arena. A SurveyMonkey poll from August found that 68% of respondents said it’s “important for corporations to take a stand on important political issues facing the nation.”
The poll, which surveyed 2,181 American adults, found that 78% of participants also said CEOs of major corporations should have a role, large or small, in advising government officials “on policies that impact their industry.”
David Mayer, a management professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, told Business Insider that while Trump has been a focal point of many recent boycotts, the issue of consumers demanding companies weigh in on political matters isn’t necessarily a partisan phenomenon.
“A lot of people feel sort of doom and gloom, like ‘Oh, everything’s getting politicized,'” he said. “But I have a more optimistic lens on this. I think societal improvement relies on us starting to expect more from powerful people and expect them to do something and start to see more of their decisions as moral decisions. Sometimes it won’t go right and it might not be in line with what you think is the right moral stance, but I think, in the long run, it’s going to be a good thing.”
Public trust in the government has plummeted to historic lows, according to the Pew Research Center, with only 20% of Americans saying they can almost always trust the government to do the right thing.
As a result, amidst the tenure of a historically unpopular president, there’s a sense that some corporations can fill the void. And that feeling isn’t limited to consumers.
“The reality is that government, for a long period of time, has for whatever set of reasons become less functional and isn’t working at the speed that it once was,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told The New York Times. “And so it does fall, I think, not just on business but on all other areas of society to step up.”
Mayer said the biggest reason consumers are clamoring for businesses to take certain political stances is the moralization of society. Things that were once viewed as a preference — for example, being environmentally sustainable — are increasingly viewed as moral issues by the broader public.
“Consumers want to make sure that the companies that they support are also supporting issues that they care about,” Mayer said.
To stick with the example of environmental responsibility, some consumers flock to businesses that adhere to their own green principles. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication reported that in November 2016, 31% of Americans “said they had rewarded companies that are taking steps to reduce global warming by buying their products more than once in the prior year.”
The internet and social media are partly responsible for the rise of the politicization and moralization of business, according to Mayer. Now more than ever, members of the public are bombarded with updates on the latest political and business happenings. Technology also makes it far easier to organize boycotts and voice anger at public figures and brands.
Because of this visibility, there’s a chance some companies could spend more time trumpeting their commitment to certain causes and values rather than actually adopting them, according to Mayer.
However, Brandi Collins, senior campaign director at Color Of Change, a progressive, African American civil rights advocacy group that launched a site listing the companies that process funds for hate groups, told Business Insider she was confident about the future of mobilizing consumers.
“It’s a great way to build critical mass in a way that can’t be ignored,” she said. “I think the ground action is starting to swell up.”
Mayer said it’s a good thing that consumers are demanding that powerful institutions be held accountable.
“I think the moralization of different social issues and expecting more from elites in different areas is a really good path toward social change,” he said, “It’s a little heated now, but I think it’s a good trend. I think it’s going to continue. I think consumers realize that they do have some impact.”