Trumpwashing: Corporations Against Trump?
There are a lot of confused and disturbing ideas in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. I get it. People want answers. People want hope. But, one of the more disturbing things in the past few days has been the amount of praise given to corporations that have come out against Trump’s policies. Once again, there seems to be some confusion about how to evaluate what is just and good in society. It seems that many people believe that anything that stands up to Trump is positive. At the same time, anything that Trump is for or associated with is negative. In other words, Starbucks and Nike are viewed positively because they stand up to Trump. They are corporations. Corporations are not our friend. This is why.
A few days ago, Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks announced that Starbucks would hire 10,000 immigrants over the next five years. These hirings would take place within the 75 countries. Suddenly, Starbucks became an icon of rebellion. Don’t be deluded. Starbucks has 7,600 stores and 160,000 employees in the U.S. alone, so a commitment of hiring 10,000 immigrant employees in 75 COUNTRIES, really doesn’t amount to much. Even within the U.S., it would only amount to 1.3 people per store in the next five years. But, numbers aside, Starbucks is a non-union workplace which pays an average of $9.34 an hour for a barista and $11.65 for a supervisor. While employees may qualify for benefits if they work over 20 hours, many of them are not given enough hours to survive. This prompted over 11,000 people to sign a barista driven petition in California last summer, which decried the “gross underemployment” that they experienced at their jobs. The CEO who is so adamant about standing up against Trump was also against the $15 an hour minimum wage bill in Seattle. The store also has a reputation for using prison labor. The company notoriously used prisoners to package its holiday coffees through a sub-contractor. So, basically, Starbucks profits from the slave labor of our largely racial minority prison population. Starbucks has gotten a lot of flak over the years. It is an icon of globalization and homogenization. The company has faced lawsuits for disability discrimination, as one store refused to serve a group of 12 deaf people and an employee was accused of falsifying documents when she had dyslexia. Starbucks has even gotten into trouble for failing to recycle its cups! It seems that if there is a corporation that is clearly TERRIBLE, it would be Starbucks. However, it promised to hire those refugees….so maybe we can all forget the environmental, labor, criminal justice, and disability rights issues. The CEO did come out in favor of same sex marriage, but this does not redeem the corporation. If anything, it is pink washing, or using LGBT support as a veil that hides other injustices. In the same way, support of immigrants is a branding ploy to sell more coffee and hide the numerous ways in which Starbucks promotes injustice in the world.
Nike’s CEO, Mark Parker, came out against Trump’s immigration ban with the statement, “Nike believes in a world where everyone celebrates the power of diversity. Regardless of whether or how you worship, where you come from or who you love, everyone’s individual experience is what makes us stronger as a whole. Those values are being threatened by the recent executive order in the U.S. banning refugees, as well as visitors, from seven Muslim-majority countries. This is a policy we don’t support.” Well, this might seem encouraging, it does not redeem Nike from its history of sweatshop labor and environmental issues. Just as Starbucks was equated with the dark side of globalization in the 1990s, Nike was equated with sweatshop labor. Because of pressure from protests and boycotts, Nike has sought to clean up its image by increasing the wages of its workers and inspecting factories. However, most of its factories continue to be located in Asia in countries with low wages, poor working conditions, and lack of union representation. For instance, in 2014, workers at a Chinese Nike factory went on strike. They made just over $1.50 an hour and often worked over 60 hours a week. In response, Nike threatened to move production to Vietnam. Nike was also accused of dumping hazardous chemicals into the Yangtze river in 2011. Globally, ⅓ of Nike’s employees work in Vietnam. Certainly the CEO of Nike was looking forward to the TPP, as this would have ended the $3 tariff placed on each shoe. Trump’s backing out of the TPP was probably met sourly by the company hoping to extract more profits from Asia. Perhaps this is where the critique of Trump’s immigration policy really comes from. In any event, Nike may have cleaned up its image, but it continues to operate in countries with notoriously awful labor conditions.
Nike and Starbucks are on my radar this week because of their recent announcements related to Donald Trump. I felt that I should write about them to offer some clarity on the issue of corporations. Really, all corporations are terrible to varying degrees. This is because all corporations seek profit. Profit inevitably and essentially relies on the exploitation of workers. This is the source of all profit. Thus, corporations like Nike and Starbucks seek out the lowest wages or cheapest coffee beans (materials). That is, they do this until enough public protest mounts and they must change their ways or risk losing business. Or, they do this until workers organize and demand better wages and conditions on their own behalf. In either case, there is nothing good or noble about these corporations. If they change for the better, it is a survival strategy. At the same time, I do not want to overstate the power of consumer sovereignty in changing corporate practices. While you can “vote with your dollar” to some degree, due to the alienation of labor a.k.a. our separation from production, the exact conditions of production are often unknown to us. I do not know the exact wages and conditions of Nike factories. This is information that I must research and even then, it is not always easy to find. Since we come in contact with thousands of products each week, it is impossible to know every aspect of the production process. Some consumers may be more knowledgeable than others, but none of us know the full picture. Further, even if we have a good idea of the conditions of production, there are larger social forces such as trade policies, advertisement, and government interventions which play a big role in what appears in the market, how it appears on the market, and social desire for these goods.
It is true that some companies attempt to give more consideration to workers and the environment. Some companies may sacrifice some profits to pay better wages or have better worker conditions. Some may invest profits into better environmental practices. But, at the heart of each company is a reliance on the conditions of the larger economy and a drive for profit. So long as a company seeks profit, workers will not be paid the full value of their labor. In harder economic times or under greater competitive pressure, those companies that seek to be more ethical will always have to chose between survival and profit. At the same time, many companies brand themselves with progressive causes to attract more consumers and draw attention away from labor conditions. For instance, Kentucky Fried Chicken put pink breast cancer awareness ribbons on their buckets. How much does KFC really care about breast cancer or women? What does eating a bucket of fried chicken do to further the cause of ending breast cancer? Perhaps if KFC cared about women, they could instead provide a living wage and health benefits to workers. Another example is greenwashing. Everything from oil companies to bottled water companies have tried to greenwash their products. That is, they promise consumers that their product is environmentally friendly. Green packaging and promises of re-investment into nature trick consumers into thinking that somehow buying the product is ethical. This newest trend of “Trumpwashing” is just the latest version of pinkwashing and greenwashing. It is part of a corporate tradition of deceptive branding.
The biggest lesson I want to impart in this post is simply to beware corporate driven rebellion. The CEOs of Facebook, AirBnB, Twitter, Nike, Starbucks, Apple, Netflix, and others have come out against Trump. Some of these, like Apple, Nike, and Starbucks, certainly benefit from open borders and free trade, especially in Asia, since this provides access to low cost labor. While I am certainly for immigration, so are many corporations, as it provides a cheap supply of labor! If companies know that people are angry, they will co-opt that anger by building a rebellious brand. There is no rebellion in buying. Thus, just because a company is against Trump, it does not make it good or ethical. Take these corporate announcements with a grain of salt and a dose of skepticism. In the meantime, continue to build the power of the people by organizing in protests, boycotts, petitions, labor organizing, and the like.