When buying ordinary products, you may be funding political causes you reject
I was in the supermarket the other day, scanning the most pretentious foreign lagers section, when to my horror I caught sight of a crate of Heineken, on the side of which was the message: “Here’s to an open world. To a world without borders or barriers. To the belief that there is more that unites us than divides us.”
Heineken is not my favourite ale – I usually only drink beer from countries with harsh immigration policies like Asahi or Tsingtao, though I’m sure that’s just coincidence – but it’s an odd thing to place on a lager bottle.
A similar theme could be found if you went down to Oxford Circus Tube station this autumn, where you would have seen a huge advertisement that proclaimed: “British Style is not 100% British. In fact, there’s no such thing as ‘100% British’. Or 100% Dutch, French, American, Asian or European. Whatever your opinion, at some point in your ancestry someone moved in and unsettled the neighbours.”
The advert was on behalf of the clothing brand Jigsaw, echoing Daniel Defoe’s famous poem “The True-Born Englishman”. It was put up to great fanfare.
If beer and diversity isn’t your thing, how about Smirnoff vodka, now recognisable from its rainbow-coloured bottles? Ditto with its rival, Absolut, which has now signed up to a promotion with the gay-rights charity Stonewall. Its website says: “For 35 years, we have been proud to stand behind the LGBTQ community, championing equal love for all.” It also claims that “Absolut have championed equal love since 1879.” Really? So Absolut supported same-sex marriage in the 1870s, when homosexuality was classed as a mental illness in Sweden, and was until the late 1970s?
Most people don’t drink vodka – and I’m sure those who do can find some Russian brands with pretty antediluvian views if they wish. But the truth is that it is very difficult to spend money anywhere without funding fashionable causes most Catholics are opposed to.
Every time you use Google, for example, you’re helping a multinational behemoth that has not only supported numerous same-sex marriage campaigns but also advocates “gender-neutral” toilets. Every time you use an Apple store, log on to Facebook, drink a Coke or even use shampoo, you are indirectly supporting progressive political causes.
As for getting a coffee from Starbucks, the chain positively prides itself on its liberal activism. Why? According to Chris Allieri, founder of the communications and marketing firm Mulberry & Astor, companies now feel the need to be known for something beyond their products and services. “It’s who are you, what do you stand for,” he told Business Insider.
This is a new and disturbing development. Firms are now keen to become politicised in a way that just didn’t happen even three or four years ago. Some more eccentric companies have always got behind environmentalism or endangered species, but to launch campaigns on such contentious and divisive issues as immigration, same-sex marriage and transgender rights is something quite new.
In business terms, this is sometimes called “pinkwashing”: the adoption of progressive causes in order to inexpensively burnish a company’s reputation. The “washing” refers to the fact that sometimes it is firms known for their ruthless business practices who are most vocal.
This phenomenon is also driven by fear and pressure from small but well-funded groups. In America, the lobby group Color of Change pressures companies to support left-wing causes with the threat of boycotts or public shaming.
In Britain, the fashion chain Topshop has adopted gender-neutral changing rooms after a complaint from one high-profile Twitter user.
Color of Change is funded by the enormously wealthy George Soros. The transgender campaign is currently being led by the deep-pocketed and influential Stonewall – and no one wants to get on the wrong side of them.
And yet there seems to be little appetite for a fight against corporate-led social change. On the contrary, there is a fatalistic resignation that there is nothing that can be done. Recently it was revealed that Catholic schools in England and Wales were removing those hateful words “mother” and “father” from admissions forms because they could be seen as discriminatory towards those with non-traditional family structures.
Clearly conservatives and feminists have different views on sex and gender, but both are deeply concerned about transgenderism because they fear it could cause lasting damage to children encouraged to transition before puberty, and both feel that women have the right to private spaces. And yet a clothing store popular with teenage girls will now allow adults with male anatomy to use the same changing rooms, so terrified is it of appearing “unwoke” (a hipster term of abuse).
Like almost all the worst things in the world, pinkwashing began in California, especially among tech companies whose workforces are young, university-educated and overwhelmingly left-wing. Like Google and Facebook, the house-renting website Airbnb has attached itself to numerous pro-immigration campaigns and makes a great song and dance about diversity.
Sometimes this corporate moral grandstanding backfires, such as when Starbucks tried to join the diversity bandwagon with an ill-conceived idea called “Race together”, in which customers were encouraged to strike up conversations about racial justice with baristas. (“So, Stanisław, what do you think of white privilege? And a medium latte, please.”) Instead, the media zoomed in on how predictably white the Starbucks board of directors was.
Yet companies will continue to agitate politically as long as they’re confident that the market among 18- to 40-year-olds is overwhelmingly socially liberal. Support for gay rights is almost universal in that age group. Immigration is far more contentious, but sceptics are wary of expressing controversial views, while being in favour of unrestricted immigration is seen as virtuous. It helps businesses, of course, that loose immigration controls and female empowerment (that is, women entering the workforce) are good for keeping wage pressure down.
Yet companies that support liberal causes are actually helping to create an intolerant atmosphere within the corporate world – and more widely. In 2014 Brendan Eich, the chief executive of Mozilla, resigned after it turned out that he had funded opponents of gay marriage. In August, Google sacked a software engineer, James Damore, who wrote an internal memo on “Google’s ideological echo chamber”, explaining that the disparity in male and female computer specialists was partly down to biology. Damore’s science was almost certainly correct, but he was guilty of “perpetuating gender stereotypes”, and so had to go.
Many young progressives supported the departure of Eich and Damore, cheering huge corporations as they parted ways with employees who had simply expressed unpopular viewpoints – something that would once have had trade unionists calling for strikes.
If one side of the cultural divide is active in consumer campaigning, then surely the other must follow. David Black, husband of the Republican Congresswoman Diane Black, was inspired by Color of Change to provide an alternative, the website 2ndvote.com, which informs socially conservative consumers and encourages them to boycott companies that stray into political territory.
The group organised a successful boycott of the retailer Target after it adopted gender-neutral toilets, prompting the company to spend $20 million instead on single-user bathrooms. It also pressured a clothing brand into dropping a promotional video starring feminist Gloria Steinem, who among other things is famous for popularising the saying “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament”. Among the companies 2ndvote considers the worst are Starbucks, Google, Apple and Uber.
The website also presents evidence of alleged connections between some companies and America’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood.
But where does this all end? The trend towards boycotts threatens the great historical breakthrough achieved by capitalism. Free trade breaks down barriers, as Voltaire observed of the London Stock Exchange, where “Jew, Mohammedan and Christian deal with each other as though they were all of the same faith”.
As companies become increasingly politicised, they are contributing to an ever more hostile ideological conflict that is beginning to resemble a second Reformation. Heineken is wrong: in the political and social landscape of the 21st century, there is more that divides than unites us.
Ed West is a journalist and author
This article first appeared in the December 8th 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here