I don’t have to tell you that this year’s presidential election is a big deal; let’s just call it an election year of OMG proportions. November may feel excruciatingly far off — democracy is notoriously, intentionally slow — but we needn’t wait that long to agitate those in power. We consumers vote every day with our dollars, and companies tally those results every quarter.
And the fact is, businesses hold immense influence in the modern world. Walmart’s $514 billion in revenues in fiscal 2018 almost equaled the gross domestic product of Belgium; Apple’s sales of $260 billion topped the Czech Republic’s GDP. This doesn’t strike me as a good thing, but it does present an opportunity — because while our elected officials are polarized into paralysis, businesses have a harder time ignoring their “constituents”: consumers.
Consumer power is different than voter power. While older Americans vote in greater numbers, a lot of companies are more concerned with appealing to their growth markets: 18- to 34-year-olds, an age cohort that leans liberal. And many young shoppers are cashing in their cultural currency, demanding some level of social and environmental responsibility from the brands they support.
“Being seen favorably by consumers is really important,” says Lawrence Glickman, a historian at Cornell University and author of Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America. “There are so many brands that depend on the good will of consumers, and they are very conscious of not wanting to be seen as a sullied brand, or a brand that’s complicit with something that a lot of their customer base might not like.”
Guided by that underlying public pressure — or, perhaps, a renewed sense of social stewardship — corporate America is in some ways doing more to represent us than our political leaders.
Take gun control. Seven years after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, and nearly two years after the horrific high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, a House-passed gun-control bill remains stalled on the GOP-controlled Senate floor. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell may not care that most Americans favor stricter gun laws, including a ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines. But CEOs do. After the Parkland shooting, Dick’s Sporting Goods pulled all semiautomatic weapons from its stores, and stopped selling firearms to anyone under 21.
Dick’s CEO Ed Stack, a gun owner himself, realized that some of the tragedy’s blood and blame could have easily ended up on his hands. The nation’s largest sporting goods chain has since eliminated gun sales completely in at least 125 locations, and even destroyed more than $5 million in semiautomatic weapons rather than return the inventory to manufacturers. And Stack’s courage forced other retailers to assess their roles in our gun violence epidemic. Walmart raised its minimum age for gun purchases and stopped selling assault weapons and ammunition for them.
Likewise, public outcry hasn’t stopped the Trump administration policy of prying immigrant children from their parents and detaining them in cells at the border. (Neither has a court order.) But the outrage did pressure JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and other banks to halt future financing to GEO Group and CoreCivic, two private prison giants that operate immigrant detention centers.
That appears less true locally. Providence-based Citizens Bank — which extended $96 million in credit to CoreCivic in 2018, according to the Center for Popular Democracy — has yet to officially cut ties with the industry. A Citizens spokesperson told me in an e-mail that the bank can’t comment on clients, but remains committed to “lending to companies that conduct their business in a socially responsible manner and, if that is not the case, we are prepared to exit those relationships.”
As customers, we can exit our relationships as well, and there’s no shortage of banks or credit unions to choose from. How many customers would need to leave Citizens behind before the bank changed its lending practices?
Climate change is another area where businesses are aligning their actions with popular opinion — and not the Trump administration. Even fossil-fuel giants like Royal Dutch Shell, Ford, and BP have asked Congress to aggressively address climate change, pushing for a price on carbon that would achieve at least an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050. When President Trump announced plans to roll back rules regulating methane leaks, Shell actually urged the Environmental Protection Agency to tighten limits on the potent greenhouse gas instead.
It’s not that these companies are heroes. They simply understand that they — like the entire economy — will have to change to survive.
Of course, small and local companies often go many steps further than national chains to promote sustainability and equality, and deserve our relentless support for doing so. But given their unique power, big corporations can sometimes even hold government accountable. North Carolina was forced to weaken its discriminatory “bathroom bill” after sports leagues and major companies boycotted doing business in the state. The economic fallout there helped tech giants like Apple pressure Texas into dropping similar legislation.
Admittedly, this is a very thin silver lining. I’m no free-market evangelist who thinks businesses can be trusted to do the right thing; centuries of greedy exploitation tell us otherwise. Some of the same companies trying to do right in one area are guilty of dubious practices elsewhere, and plenty of others just offer feel-good green washing and empty PR posturing.
Ultimately, there’s a limit to what consumer pressure or corporate leadership can achieve. Addressing a global crisis like climate change demands the sweeping, holistic changes to our economy and infrastructure that only come about through concerted government action. So for the love of God, please vote this year. But in the meantime, check the political pedigree of the businesses you support. Because when the will of the people is so actively ignored by lawmakers, it feels good to know that someone with power is listening.
Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.