business news in context, analysis with attitude

Last week, we posted an email from an MNB user who wanted to comment about JC Penney's troubles, saying that one of the points I was missing that the "Christian community" has backed away from companies like JC Penney that "outwardly support gay initiatives" - in JCPO's case, it was a Mother's Day commercial featuring a two mom family, and a Father's Day commercial featuring two dads. "Trust me," this person wrote, "my family and I are not alone in our boycotts."

My response was as follows:

I'm sure you're not. Must be tough not drinking coffee from Starbucks, not ordering products from Amazon, not watching any network or visiting any theme park owned by Disney, not eating Oreos, not buying Microsoft or Apple products, not wearing Levi's, and not shopping at Nordstrom or Target. It also must be tough knowing that support for gay rights is increasing, and that in many ways, the war is over, though battles remain to be fought. But hey ... I've always believed that consumers and investors should support companies that reflect their world view, and not patronize those that do not.

This response, in turn, prompted several emails.

From one reader:

If you gain and retain readers as you contend, I am amazed, because I have been a reader for under a year and have been turned off by your column more than once. Your ribbing of a reader that shared their view is unwelcome and unnecessary. If you want a robust conversation then you must be willing to accept other’s viewpoints with grace and humility, both of which you sorely lack.

Those whose opinions differ from yours on hot-button political issues are chided and made fun of, with a more-than-unnecessary sarcasm. So what, the reader chooses to stand his moral ground and not shop at retailers that back gay marriage. That is his right and he is entitled to state it. You, Kevin, are not the only one that gets to be politically incorrect. It amazes me that you would suggest someone take the easy way out (i.e. shopping at Amazon) and forego their principles, considering you so often promote shopping “Made in America” and “Non-GMO,” both of which are not easy.

I am a vegetarian and my shopping choices are limited. I choose not to buy meat, meat-based products, leather, etc. This drastically limits the products I can buy and where I can buy them from, but it’s an issue that is dear to me and I will stand by it, regardless of the inconvenience. I applaud the reader for sharing his opinion, however unpopular by your standards.

Your thinly veiled  political leanings are frankly becoming blatantly obvious and overbearing.

And from another:

I must say, your response to a reader expressing why they didn't shop at JCP smacked a bit of: 'I'm right, and I'm sorry for you because you're obviously wrong' (despite your half-hearted disclaimer at the end).

There are lots of people with lots of world views, and they are absolutely entitled to them (as long as they're legal), regardless of what you think, what major corporations think, and what popular media thinks.  It seems a little hypocritical to demonstrate intolerance towards someone's viewpoint for what you see as their being intolerant.  At least that's how your comments sounded to me.

And, from MNB user Daniel Hariton McQuade:

I support your comments, "I've always believed that consumers and investors should support companies that reflect their world view, and not patronize those that do not." , both socially and economically.

Our family has created an investment " life" portfolio. We invest in companies that we use their products, services and we support their go to market strategy, mission statement and social responsibility. We see the world as being much bigger than we are versus the narrow vision of the MNB user that wrote those comments.

Selected from tech companies, retailers, CPG's and service providers our investments are part of our life on a daily basis. It's great to go to one of the companies outlets and interact not only as a customer but as an investor that believes in the people, the product and the culture of that company and we let the team members know that when we interact.

Usually we ask how they are doing and what they think about how the company is doing. Kind of our own "insider trading" activity. It's great feedback!

So far, so good! A long term vision for our "life portfolio" and it has been doing well.

Some in the MNB community may not believe it, but I've spent a lot of time this weekend thinking about these emails and the issue that they address.

And I've concluded that I was flippant and sarcastic to a degree that is inappropriate. I'm by nature a wisenheimer, and I think humor and even sarcasm can be applied to most issues, but I'd like to think that when I do so, it is with some degree of thoughtfulness. By that standard, I think I failed on Friday. My mouth and fingers got ahead of my brain, as sometimes (often?) happens.

Now ... You are more than welcome to try to categorize my politics and cultural leanings, though I suspect that they may be more complicated than you think. I try to always keep in mind the line from the great writer Pete Hamill - that ideology is just a substitute for thought. But what the hell - my opinions are out there for everyone to see, my name and picture are on every edition on MNB, and if I'm going to be arrogant enough to comment on the news and share my opinions, I better be humble enough to accept criticism and post it here. (You say that my opinions are "thinly veiled." I'd argue that for the most part, when relevant, they are neither veiled nor anonymous.)

The point I was trying to make, though I did so clumsily, was that I'm not sure I agree with the observation that JCP's troubles were even a little bit related to the pro-gay ads. I'd actually forgotten all about them, though I'd written about them at the time on MNB, and I'd seen virtually nothing in the news or on the web to suggest that there were cultural issues affecting the retailer's consumer traffic, sales and profits. Maybe I'm just reading the wrong websites. But I'd seen nothing.

By listing all the other companies that seem to have gone out of their way to express not just tolerance, but some level of solidarity with the gay community, I was trying to show how mainstream such attitudes have become ... and if there is a cultural backlash against companies taking such positions, these particular businesses would seem to be unaware of it. Or at least, I'm unaware of it. I'm sure there have been some protests and even some attempts at boycotts, but they certainly haven't gotten any large-scale traction.

Let's talk about the word "tolerance" for a moment, because that's what I've spent a lot of time thinking about...

You're right. To some degree I was intolerant of other people's opinions. But this is not an easy one, because in my view, the thing I was being intolerant of was, in fact, intolerance. (This is a conundrum. How tolerant must one be of an point of view that one sees as reflecting intolerance?) And this is not some abstract political issue for me - I have members of my family, whom I love very much, who are members of the LGBT community, and I take very personally intolerance toward them or discrimination against them. Hence, my smart mouth. (BTW...I treasure the email that I got about a year ago that started, "I really don't care that you are gay...")

Now, I recognize that this issue gets more complicated for some people because of religious teachings that they believe are intractable in this area. But y'know ... opinion and emotion in the "Christian community" hardly seems monolithic. There are a lot of people who consider themselves Christians, who I would consider to be exceptional Christians in word and deed, who have been able to reconcile their religious beliefs with their conviction that a Christian's moral imperative must be to support love, justice and tolerance for all people, even members of the LGBT community.

I remain convinced, as I wrote last week, that in many ways, the war is over on many of these issues, though battles remain to be fought on various fronts. I think there will be people and institutions on the right side of history and the wrong side of history. I believe firmly that for many people, these issues will remain extremely complicated and not easily resolved. And I respect the fact that they can and often will exercise their opinions through the support of and rejection of certain companies.

And I think that while these issues may seem cultural in nature, they also concern businesses. Because we should keep in mind that it was in a discussion of JC Penney that this conversation started. And so I can promise that we're going to keep discussing even the thorny issues, and that I'm going to try to be provocative and thoughtful and irreverent and entertaining. And I can even promise you that from time to time, I'll probably cross the line and be flippant and sarcastic to a degree that is inappropriate. But I'll try to learn from all of it.

And now, on to other matters...

Regarding the decision by HEB to begin carrying Whataburger ketchup and mustard, one MNB user wrote:

Good for H-E-B!  They are a clever and intuitive company…this reminds me of their exclusive distribution of Salt Lick BBQ Sauce.  Although it may seem small, reasons like this are why H-E-B is loved by their customer base.

Whataburger ketchup is indeed superior to all ketchups.  I know, spoken like a true Texan.  So much so that when you dine in, you can’t just pick up an excessive amount of packets or pump potentially wasted excesses of the fine condiments into a cup or on a tray.  No, their team members bring condiments and napkins table to table, preventing waste and adding exceptional customer service that one normally doesn’t get at a fast food joint!

I have been reassured by several Texas friends that this is all true - that Whataburger condiments are indeed something special.

I bow to your greater insight.

Responding to our recent Eye-Opener about the responsibility retailers have to make sure that the products they are selling are not being manufactured in facilities outside the country that are putting their workers in unsafe conditions, one MNB user wrote:

Recently, Amy Hall, Director of Social Consciousness for Eileen Fisher, appeared on WNYC on the Brian Lehrer show. Obviously, Eileen Fisher is an apparel brand that is serious about supporting a sustainable model of manufacturing.  Amy was quite eloquent about the lengths to which the company will go to make its overpriced schmattas eco-friendly – such as looking for a substance other than chlorine to make the washable wool washable.

They got into a discussion about the tragedy in Bangladesh, and how much responsibility the manufacturer ought to bear to ensure the safety of off-shore workers, even when those workers aren’t directly employed by the US firm.  Brian Lehrer made the sensible suggestion that one way to avoid such tragedies would be to bring the manufacturing home to the USA. 

Well, that would be hard, said the Director of Social Consciousness – “because we don’t have the talent here“ in the US!!!  Why, it would take years to get Americans up to snuff!  Brian Lehrer, apparently not believing his ears, asked what she meant by ‘talent’.  Designers?  Nope.  Folks who sit at a sewing machine and run up seams.  Matter of fact, the best ‘talent’ for keeping a seam straight is found in China.
It would be funny if it weren’t so horrible.

Not a very good argument to make these days, I think.

MNB user Jim McConnell had some thoughts about how Whole Foods treats its employees:

I also work at Whole Foods Market in a regional support office.  I agree with the letter writer.  Even though we have a special week once per year, this is the culture all year long.  Team Member happiness is a part on our principles and core values.  Whole Foods Market is a great place to work; and the best job I have had in my long career in the food industry.

I recently criticized Newsweek for managing to achieve almost total irrelevance, despite its switch to an all-digital format. Which prompted MNB user Rich Heiland to write:

A couple of years ago I subscribed to Newsweek because I got an offer to do so for a buck. I read it years and years ago and so thought I would give it a try. When they announced the were going digital only, I went along with it rather than ask for the 29 cents back on the remainder of my subscription. But, digital as I am these days, I have yet to follow one single email to the digital site.

I think one thing Newsweek did not understand is that most of us have a digital "lineup" of places we go each day. In my case, Newsweek can't crack that line-up.

Just going digital doesn't make you relevant. There's gotta be some meat with the sizzle.

Last Friday, I had a piece about how forensic anthropologists have discovered that at least some of the early settlers at Jamestown resorted to cannibalism in order to survive the harsh winter of 1609.

About which I commented:

As grossed out as I am, I have to admit that I find myself wondering what they served with the meal.

Fava beans and nice chianti, perhaps?

MNB user Larry Vander Meulen responded:

Not a light subject.  I would not be so quick to judge.  If you were faced with their situation, death by starvation or cannibalism, what would you do?

Until you are in that situation, don’t judge.  I am sure it was a very tough decision for them.

C'mon, Larry. I wasn't judging. I was making a joke. And a movie reference to The Silence of the Lambs.

In fact, experience suggests that if I hadn't made that Hannibal Lechter reference, I would've gotten a dozen emails asking me how I'd missed such an obvious opening.

MNB user Chuck Lungstrom responded:

I instantly visualized Anthony Hopkins slithering tongue with your reference ... but I was still grossed out by the whole image from the story as well as the movie.
KC's View: