GLBT Consumer Activism: Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

We all have spent money on something we saw in an advertisement. Some of us are veritable slaves to fashion and name brands, while others focus solely on form and function. Regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, today’s Information Age has multiplied our choices. That same technology also has expanded our awareness of political, social, and ecological causes, a number of which we didn’t even have words for until just a few years ago, but they all vie for our attention and our dollars.

Marketers, savvy that their target audience is more socially conscious, now are touting the virtues of a company as much as they are its products, and their clients clearly are banking on your putting your money where your mouth is. While tying spending habits to one’s conscience is nothing new, consumer activism has become a force to be reckoned with. GLBT dollars now are being sought out with evangelical zeal by corporate America and the corner stores alike.

But it hasn’t always been like that. The emergence of the gay consumer has run parallel to other minorities and marginalized groups. Certain parts of town were welcoming to gay-owned businesses, and by extension, the GLBT community. As broader acceptance of gays took hold, recommendations of so-called “gay-friendly” businesses were spread by word of mouth.

It didn’t take long for the term “gay- friendly” to become outdated. Those who worked actively for gay equality emerged as “allies.” Skirmishes to win GLBT patrons escalated into veritable corporate battles for not just consumers, but investment dollars as well. That translated into changing course for traditional corporate behemoths.

The new course has had substantial positive returns. Corporations are going to great lengths to recruit and retain talented GLBT employees by putting human resources policies in place that go beyond simply ending discrimination. Corporate America now is celebrating the strengths in differences, rather than fearing them.

For the GLBT community, that includes recognition of partners as an integral part of the employee’s family, and extending health care and other benefits to them—an act of responsible corporate citizenship that translates into good business and a better bottom line.

GLBT America is made up of an estimated 16.5 million people, with a buying power of nearly $800 billion, a figure expected to top $1 trillion by 2012. That is especially significant, because the GLBT community is typically more conscious about corporate diversity practices in terms of equal treatment of employees, and spends accordingly.

A 2004 study of 2,000 adults by Witeck-Combs Communications found that nearly eight in ten gays and lesbians choose to do business with companies they know have a commitment to diversity and equal treatment of employees, contrasted with only six out of ten heterosexuals. It also reported that gays and lesbians tend to look even closer at a company’s internal practices when considering brands, even for everyday purchases.

The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) developed its Buying For Equality: A Guide to Companies and Products That Support GLBT Equality in an effort to help GLBT consumers toward that end, and to recognize corporate retailers who have made equality a priority.

A significant part of GLBT buying power is GLBT-owned businesses. It is estimated that the United States has between 800,000 and 1.4 million gay-owned businesses, further driving the movement toward socially conscious spending.

The National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) is situated uniquely to bridge the gap between GLBT-owned businesses and corporate America. With a network of 45 local affiliate chambers and business organizations nationwide, it is in the business of creating opportunity. In addition to numerous partnerships with multinational corporations, its influence extends to small and medium-sized businesses. Like HRC, its political sibling, NGLCC is focused on promoting equality in the workplace.

NGLCC President and Cofounder Justin Nelson encourages local business owners and corporate executives to “be part of the GLBT equality movement. The easiest way to do that is to be part of the local GLBT chamber of commerce, and identify as a GLBT-owned or allied business.”

Consumer activism isn’t always about putting your money where your mouth is. It can take the form of withdrawing support in the form of boycotts.

Rosa Parks took a stand—or rather, a seat—against discrimination, setting into motion one of the best-known and most-successful acts of consumer activism. On December 5, 1955, the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott began, which lasted 381 days. When it ended, the event changed the lives of blacks living not just in Montgomery, Alabama, but also throughout the nation. It made an enduring impression on civil rights with its aftershocks still being felt today.

A number of ultraconservative organizations like the antigay American Family Association (AFA) are defined by their boycott activities. The organization led a nine-year boycott of the Disney Corporation for its “promotion of homosexuality in the culture and in the media,” and for Miramax (a former Disney-owned company) productions that were gay-themed or irreligious. The boycott ended in 2006 with AFA tacitly claiming responsibility for Disney’s “determined effort to clean up its act, and return to its heyday as the preeminent platform of family-friendly entertainment.” Suffice it to say, the group is none too happy about the annual Gay Days at Orlando’s Walt Disney World.

AFA also took credit for the marked downturn in Ford sales, along with its subsequent drop in advertising and charitable spending, some, of course, to groups that support same-sex marriage. The organization launched a boycott of the automaker two years ago, because it “reneged on an agreement to stop funding homosexual groups.” AFA’s claim loses quite a bit of horsepower in view of Ford’s loss in sales having resulted partly from a decision to reduce its low-profit sales to rental car agencies by 32 percent. Ford received a perfect 100 on the 2008 HRC Corporate Equality Index.

Undaunted by the AFA boycott, Ford stated, “We are committed to treating everyone fairly and with respect. Ford will continue to market its products widely to attract as many customers as possible, and make charitable contributions to strengthen communities to the extent that business conditions allow.”

So, are boycotts effective, or do they simply send a message to companies?

In 2006, Witeck-Combs conducted a study in the wake of several publicized threats against companies from Microsoft and Procter & Gamble to Nike, Kraft Foods, and Hewlett-Packard. It found that nearly six in ten Americans oppose boycotts. A mere 8 percent strongly favor boycotts against gay-friendly marketers.

More significant, according to the study, “Real-world experience also shows that of the scant few who register hostility in the marketplace, fewer of them follow through.”

Most Americans, according to the study, perceive the public attacks as bullying and unbalanced.

Even a cursory look at how you spend your money will reveal a lot about what is important to you. A walk around Loring Park during the Pride Festival will tell you which companies support the GLBT community. As corporate practices become more closely tied to social justice, ecology, and community, it’s easier to make decisions on where those impulse purchases will be made, and where long-term relationships in the pocketbook will be consummated.

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