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The Wayfair Effect: Companies Find Their Voices Rebuking Racism

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
New Activism
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Top executives in the U.S. business community are well versed in advocating for tolerance, inclusion and equal rights. However, they are still struggling to find a voice when those mores are broken by the chief executive of the nation’s government. In particular, the issues surrounding the president’s racism have placed business leaders in a conundrum, as executives at Wayfair experienced last month. They are reluctant to denounce any elected official by name, but they are also losing the opportunity to demonstrate that statements of corporate social responsibility bear real weight in the real world.

Nevertheless, there are signs that some business leaders are ready to confront the president on racism, as a matter of both brand reputation and employee loyalty.

Wayfair, social responsibility and employee activism

When workers at the home furnishing company Wayfair staged a walkout in downtown Boston on June 26, it was a vivid illustration that brands stand to lose both their reputation and employee loyalty if they fail to respond to growing public concerns over the president’s racist statements and domestic policies.

The Wayfair walkout was in protest of the company’s role in providing mattresses for a federal detention facility housing immigrant children in Texas. A group of employees first raised the issue in a letter to top executives at the firm. After their employer dismissed their concerns, they organized the walkout.

Employees at other leading companies have also advocated for action in opposition to the president’s policies, but these have stopped at the writing stage. The Wayfair employees took their action up a level by, literally, taking it to the street.

The Siemens solution: Call racism by its name

Executive leadership at Wayfair could have avoided a public demonstration by responding more proactively to employee concerns. In that regard, Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser has taken an important, proactive step to assure his workers that their employer pays attention to their concerns.

On July 20, Kaeser responded on Twitter to accounts in the German press regarding the president’s ad-hominem attacks on four female, nonwhite members of Congress. Without naming the president, he stated (via this rough translation):

“ . . . it depresses me that the most important political office in the world will be the face of racism and exclusion. I have lived in the USA for many years, experiencing freedom, tolerance and openness as never before. That was ‘Make America Great Again’!!”

How to tell it like it is

Although the reference to the current U.S. president was obvious, Kaeser—who has a long history of publicly denouncing racism and xenophobia—framed his criticism to strike a broader target. Rather than rendering an ethical or moral judgement on the president as a person, Kaeser simply gave voice to the widely held opinion that racism is a moral wrong, regardless of who occupies "the most important political office in the world.”

In doing so, Kaeser amplified the point that the U.S. children’s publishing company Highlights made in June, when it publicly criticized the president’s family separation policy on the basis of “human decency, plain and simple.”

Baltimore becomes a target

U.S. business leaders were largely restrained in their response to the president’s attacks on the four Congresswomen. A more recent development suggests that they lost that earlier opportunity to get out in front of the issue.

Last weekend, the president began targeting U.S. Rep Elijah Cummings of Maryland. In doing so, he disparaged both Cummings and his congressional district, including about half of the city of Baltimore (pictured above).

Baltimore has a significant majority-minority population including almost 63 percent identifying as black or African-American, according to the latest U.S. Census figure.

The attack on Cummings and Baltimore sparked a fresh round of criticism from elected officials and op-ed writers. Media stakeholders are also beginning to use words like “racism” and “racist” instead of “racially charged” to describe the president and his statements.

Still, the U.S. business community has been largely restrained.

Under Armour strikes back

As of this writing, the sole exception to the business community’s restraint has been Baltimore-based Under Armour.

Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, like many other chief executives, initially expressed support of the new administration when the president first took office in 2017.

However, Plank’s expression of support for the newly sworn-in President occurred during the same period in which the President’s controversial “Muslim ban” sparked a national uproar. Plank was firmly rebuked by employees, customers and Under Armour spokesperson Dwayne The Rock Johnson.

Johnson staked out the moral high ground, explaining in on social media that “great leaders inspire and galvanize the masses during turbulent times, they don't cause people to divide and disband.”

Plank listened. Among other actions in 2017, he pulled Under Armour out of the president’s Manufacturing Council and launched the new We Will community engagement program. He also publicly criticized the president’s decision to pull the country out of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

That experience prepared Under Armour to respond quickly. Shortly after the president began his verbal attacks on Cummings and Baltimore, Plank used his personal Instagram account to repost the We Will launch video.

Narrated by an African-American voice, the one-minute video is a call for recognizing the grace, dignity and diversity of Baltimore. Without papering over the challenges faced by cities like Baltimore, the video is a call for civic unity.

The video also echoes the theme of unity expressed in a YouTube video the company released around the same time, which declares that “sports will unite the world" and reinforces the company’s “United We Win” partnership with pro football player Kenny Stills.

Above all, the We Will video asks the question, “What will happen if we rose up together?”

What, indeed.

Image credit: Bruce Emmerling/Pixabay

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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