Shooting straight at Target?

Target, the American discount retail giant that has for years been trying to claw market share from its mammoth rival Wal-Mart, was generally regarded as a more socially responsible alterntive to its big box competitor. That started to change with Wal-…

Target, the American discount retail giant that has for years been trying to claw market share from its mammoth rival Wal-Mart, was generally regarded as a more socially responsible alterntive to its big box competitor. That started to change with Wal-Mart’s sustainability u-turn a few years ago, prompting Fast Company magazine to recently proclaim Walmart the winner in the “sustainability face-off” between the two companies.

One area of social responsibility where Target has continued to outpunch its rival though has been in diversity and human rights. For example, Target scored a maximum 100 points in the most recent Corporate Equality Index published by Human Rights Campaign, the largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization in the US. Among other things, Target extends its employee’s health care coverage to same-sex partners. Wal-Mart, by comparison, until recently provided coverage to less than half of its own employees never mind their partners. It scored just 40 on the Index.

However, in the last two months, Target’s carefully nurtured diversity reputation has begun to unravel. It is now in the midst of a boycott from LGBT customers, appears to have seriously angered many of its once loyal employees, and has even had the social media campaign for the launch of its fall clothing line derailed.

The cause? A relatively innoculous looking $150,000 campaign donation in the upcoming 2010 Minnesota Governor’s Race. Target made the donation to MN Forward, a political action commitee which describes itself as “established to ensure that private-sector job creation and economic growth are at the top of the agenda during the 2010 campaign” . The group works to solicit campaign donations from  “Minnesota job creators to elect candidates from both parties who support policies that enhance job growth”.

So far, so uncontroversial. Target is among a number of Minnesota-based companies contributing to MN Forward, with a view to backing candidates making job creation and support for business a priority. The group is putting its corporate money behind the Republican candidate Tom Emmer in the Governor’s race. And they make no bones about why: “As a legislator, Tom Emmer voted against job-killing taxes and for reduced government spending. Emmer voted with the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce 91% of the time”. You can’t get much more pro-business than that. So it’s hardly very surprising that Target is willing to cough up a few readies to get their man in poll position. So where’s the rub?

The problem is Emmer isn’t just about supporting business. He’s also about supporting marriage. Traditional marriage. As in, not gay marriage. All of the other candidates are in support of legalizing same-sex marriage in the state, but Emmer has been a staunch opponent of LGBT marriage rights. As he says on his campaign website: “I believe marriage is the union between one man and one woman. As a legislator, I have consistently supported the constitutional marriage amendment that protects traditional marriage.”

There’s more, as the Minnesota Independent newspaper documents well:

“In 2007, Emmer authored a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage and civil unions. In many instances, Emmer has tried to change language in bills to that same-sex couples cannot benefit. In a bill to create standards around surrogate motherhood, Emmer attempted to replace the word “parents” with the words “mother and father.” In a wrongful death bill this session, Emmer questioned the use of the term “domestic partner” just as he has in bills aimed at providing benefits for same-sex partners. Emmer has also been criticized for his association with Christian hard rock ministry, You Can Run But You Cannot Hide Intl., Inc., which has made incendiary statements about the morality of imprisoning and executing homosexuals. Emmer’s campaign had purchased table space at the group’s fundraiser and visited with the group on the radio and in person.”

Ah. So, not exactly a poster boy for Target’s diversity policies then. The company, a regular supporter of the local gay pride festival, is more used to being recognized for its leadership on LGBT issues. So given this kind of backstory it is perhaps no surprise that the company’s campaign donation has ignited a bit of a storm. Gay rights organizations have been up in arms, various facebook campaigns have been started, and protests have been held outside of the firm’s stores. Boycott plans and employee unrest have followed.

Initially, Target was unrepentant. The CEO’s response to staff was an email largely dismissing the problem. In the mail, he wrote: “We rarely endorse all advocated positions of the organizations or candidates we support, and we do not have a political or social agenda. As you know, Target has a history of supporting organizations and candidates, on both sides of the aisle, who seek to advance policies aligned with our business objectives, such as job creation and economic growth…Let me be very clear, Target’s support of the GLBT community is unwavering, and inclusiveness remains a core value of our company.”

However, fearing an escalation of the storm, earlier this month Target’s CEO issued an apology letter to employees, remarking that “while I firmly believe that a business climate conducive to growth is critical to our future, I realize our decision affected many of you in a way I did not anticipate, and for that I am genuinely sorry.” This seemed to stem the tide of protest, but the story has yet to go away for the troubled retailer. Last week, the Human Rights Campaign (yes, the group that gave Target the 100/100 score for their equality policies) announced that the company has refused to “make it right” to the LGBT community by retracting the donation or making a matching $150,000 donation to a gay rights organizaton. HRC said it would be making a $150,000 donation itself to elect a pro-equality governor.

We doubt ths will be the end of the story. But what can we learn from events so far? One clear conclusion is that the recent Citizens United ruling in the US that gives private corporations the right to fund political broadcasts during elections is not going to be a field of roses for companies. Whilst it may guarantee them free political speech, the question is will they necessarily want to use it given the dangers of upsetting their many and varied stakeholders? Big brand companies especially will probably want to be proceed with politics very carefully and not without due dilligence – as Target have found to their cost.

Secondly, companies will need to get smarter about how to engage in identity politics. It is no use saying “we don’t have a political agenda” when you’ve invested in supporting minority or under-represented groups such as LGBTs, racial minoroties,or the handicapped. The decisions may be driven by business concerns but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have political ramifcations. And identity-based organizations know this and are ready to exploit companies’ naivety. McDonald’s have already been burnt on a simialr issue, as we reported a couple of months ago. And if you want to read more, we’ve recently written a couple of downloadable academic papers focusing on corporations and identity politics and how to bring identity afiliations into stakeholder identification.

The point is that companies are not yet very skilled at joined-up thinking across their span of operations when it comes to issues like gay rights – or any number of other issues that reflect people’s complex and multi-faceted identities. Target is learning to thnk about LGBT issues not just in relation to human resources, but also in marketing, investor relations and government relations. Next it could be Muslims, Mexican immigrants or Mothers Against Drink Driving pointing out their inconsistencies. Or perhaps the American Family Association will start boycotting them now that they’ve heard about all that pro-gay stuff Target were doing. Then we’ll really see if the company has a political agenda.

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