The state of western politics and the rise of global populism have become the focal point in almost every area of contemporary life. Many people are divided and even more have been driven to make their voices heard one way or the other.
Since US President Donald Trump’s inauguration last month his policies and actions have seldom been out of the news, or the mouths of people across the world. Among numerous controversial executive orders which have stormed the US, Trump’s travel ban has encouraged voices from all walks to speak out.
One of those voices was high street chain Starbucks, which protested the ban by pledging to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years.
They were not alone: retailers Apple, Nike and Adidas among many other firms chose to publicly oppose Trump’s policy, pole-vaulting the line which normally stops large businesses getting involved.
This is an unusual move, for unusual times. Prior to this, the Stop Funding Hate campaign ramped up pressure on retailers and big business to stop advertising with papers renowned for promoting divisional politics.
Lego was the first to sign up to the movement, while John Lewis highlighted just how reluctant retailers are to involve themselves.
“We fully appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue but we never make an editorial judgement on a particular newspaper,” the department store stated.
“It is understandable that CEOs and other spokespeople don’t want to put their head above the parapet for fear of what shit is getting flung around in the twittersphere!”
There is a good reason why large businesses so rarely get involved in politics publicly. But with a government administration that could put the livelihood of their customers and staff at risk, do retailers have a responsibility to break their silence?
“The large-scale and vocal protest against the ban has forced companies into getting off the political fence,” said Professor Cathy Parker, an expert in retail enterprise at Manchester Metropolitan University.
“Otherwise they are unwittingly looking like they are siding with Trump – by not having an opinion, and they don’t want to risk a consumer boycott.
“Look at what happened to Uber – the chief executive Travis Kalanick did not criticise the Trump travel ban explicitly enough – and appeared to profiteer from the demand for taxis at JFK.
“The next thing he is having to pledge £3 million to support the legal funds of those affected, to try and counteract the widespread negative PR.”
Negative PR is an unavoidable part of businesses picking a side in a political debate. No matter how controversial, there will be a group of people opposed to their viewpoint, not least the government itself.
However, hypocrisy will lose customers on all sides of the political spectrum.
“(Uber) was already on shaky ground – when aspects of its business model have been deemed illegal in the US (FTC ruling) how can it call out Trump’s dodgy policies?” Parker said.
“This ‘glass houses’ dilemma faces most large organisations – and especially retailers who rely on such a global and complicated supply chain. It is hard for them to know they are ‘squeaky clean’.
“And in a post-truth era lies spread quickly – so it is understandable that chief executives and other spokespeople don’t want to put their head above the parapet for fear of what shit is getting flung around in the twittersphere!”
Despite its potential risks, there are also substantial rewards to be gained from picking a side. Menzies LLP’s retail sect