Award-winning journalist Fran Hawthorne has been a writer or editor at Fortune, BusinessWeek, Institutional Investor, and other publications. She is the author of Ethical Chic: The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love, The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting,and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism, and books on health care and investing.
Liberals seem to get all the attention for investing and shopping according to their ethical values, perhaps because the Civil Rights movement began with a boycott of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. And since then, the most famous consumer actions have tended to tilt leftward—against Dow Chemical for making napalm during the Vietnam War, or against Nike and now Apple for dreadful working conditions at overseas factories.
So it’s only fair that it’s finally the conservatives’ turn.
Dan Cathy, president and scion of the $4 billion chicken chain Chick-fil-A, has proudly publicized his traditional Baptist beliefs and, in particular, his opposition to same-sex marriage. As he told a radio station, “I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.' "
Accordingly, gay rights groups have called for a boycott, while Christian conservatives promised to eat more chicken than ever and declared a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day.” Conservative politicians like the former presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are leading the charge.
Rare though it might seem to be, Chick-fil-A isn’t the first right-wing consumer cause. For instance, there are socially responsible investment vehicles from all sides of the values spectrum. Some religious-based funds avoid companies in the business of selling alcohol, tobacco, and military equipment—seemingly liberal causes—but others shun anything to do with abortion or birth control. The Republican state treasurer of Missouri launched a “terror-free fund” a few years back, to bam companies that have a financial relationship with countries on the federal government’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
As it happens, I’ve never eaten at Chick-fil-A. Until this controversy, I was only vaguely aware of the company, and there are no outlets near me.
On the other hand, I also don’t live near any In-N-Out Burger sites—I’m in New York, and the chain is located only in the West—but my family makes a beeline whenever we are within 10 miles of an In-N-Out restaurant, because we love the high-quality beef and secret sauce. Never mind that this brand, too, could be considered a fundamentalist Christian company, because the late president, a born-again Christian, instituted a practice of referencing Biblical chapters and verses on its paper cups. (Who even looks at the bottom of the cups?)
It’s too soon to tell which side will win the current chicken war. As a liberal, of course I hope the pro-Chick-fil-A movement flounders. I am troubled by the intolerance—indeed, the avid and self-satisfied intolerance—of the chain’s owner. If I ever stumble across an outlet, I will stay away.
Yet in a weird way, I’m glad to see the concept of ethical shopping gaining favor among conservatives.
True, right-wing activism will probably lead to more union-busting or anti-gay bias in the short run, if consumers flock to companies that engage in those practices. Chick-fil-A would undoubtedly rake in less profit if people like Huckabee and Santorum weren’t making such a concerted effort to dine there.
However, in the longer run, this trend could mean a chance for dialogue. With both sides now talking the language of ethical consumption and activism, maybe we can change some minds or find common ground.
We all win when consumers realize that every dollar has a larger meaning.
Cow photo from Bigstock.