Earlier this week, Jason Fried, the cofounder of productivity software company Basecamp, published a controversial blog post issuing several changes in corporate culture at the popular tech company.
The first item on the list, “No more societal and political discussions on our company Basecamp account,” has sparked the most conversation online.
“Today’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant,” Fried wrote.
Fried also referred to politics as “not healthy” and “a major distraction” that “saps our energy, and redirects our dialog towards dark places,” concluding that political conversations “can’t happen where the work happens anymore.”
The New York Times noted that Basecamp isn’t the first tech firm to adopt an apolitical stance.
“Basecamp’s move echoes a ban on talking politics at Coinbase, which was enacted in September by its chief executive, Brian Armstrong, prompting dozens of employees to leave the company,” wrote the Times’s Sarah Kessler.
Coinbase and Basecamp likely won’t be the last businesses to attempt a post-political realignment.
The last year has seen increasing corporate involvement in the political space, with many corporations expressing support for Black Lives Matter protesters in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Officer Derek Chauvin, and storied brands such as Coca-Cola and Delta taking a stand against Georgia Republicans’ attempts to stifle voting rights.
Even as many corporations feel a newfound duty to enter the civic space, it stands to reason that a few edgy companies will try to run counter the trend.
And it makes sense that two tech companies are leading the backlash. Big Tech tends to be a very white, very male-dominated space, and white males are most likely to see causes that affect the daily lives of people of color and women as merely “political” distractions.
These tech leaders either don’t see or simply won’t acknowledge that calling yourself apolitical is a political choice. The idea of “staying out of politics” really only makes sense if you enjoy enough privilege in your daily life that you benefit from the persistence of the status quo. (One of Fried’s other announcements was that he was disbanding Basecamp’s diversity, equity, and inclusion committee and reassigning its tasks to one HR staffer – a white-presenting woman.)
In this week’s episode of “Pitchfork Economics,” hosts Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein talked with Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, cofounders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, about the social and political impact of businesses – and whether corporations have a responsibility to enact meaningful social change in the first place.
Ben & Jerry’s has always been a leader in corporate political activism.
“Back during the Cold War in the late ’80s,” Greenfield said, “when the US and Russia were in a huge military buildup, Ben & Jerry’s came out with an ice cream bar on a stick. We decided to call the product ‘Peace Pop’ and use the packaging to talk about redirecting 1% of the military budget to peace-through-understanding initiatives.”
Greenfield said that the Peace Pop was Ben & Jerry’s first major foray into activism, and the decision faced some controversy, even inside the business.
“People were concerned that the company was going to be seen as unpatriotic and soft on defense,” Greenfield said. “The concern was consumers and stores would boycott us and distributors wouldn’t take the product in. Ben, in his wisdom, essentially forced it on the company.”
There was some hate mail, but Peace Pops were a big hit with consumers.
“Certainly not everybody agreed with the stand Ben and Jerry’s was taking,” Greenfield said, “but even people who didn’t agree with it respected the idea that the business was looking out for the common good.”
Greenfield also believes the high quality of the product had a lot to do with its success. In the end, he said, the ice cream bar “still has to taste good.”
He credits Cohen for “doing all the quality control on the product and eating an enormous amount of ice cream” in the testing phases, keeping close tabs on “the thickness of the chocolate, the different types of chocolate, the different melting points, the inclusions and chunks.” Concocting a quality mass-market ice cream bar “is not a simple thing,” Greenfield said.
“I sacrificed my body for my company,” Cohen said. “I used to weigh 50 pounds more.”
That said, a lot has changed since the 1980s. For four decades, neoliberal leaders on both sides of the aisle have slashed government’s power through deregulation and the slashing of tax rates for the wealthiest people and corporations.
Cohen believes businesses and corporations enjoy almost unprecedented power today, to the point that they’re ‘the most powerful force in society.’
Businesses, Cohen said, “control our elections through campaign contributions, they control our legislation through lobbying, and they control the news we read through ownership of the media.”
As a result, many people perceive businesses as the most influential actors in our daily lives. “I think that consumers are looking at businesses to use their power in the public good,” Cohen said.
Greenfield doesn’t believe businesses should have that kind of power. “When people talk about businesses being ethical, what they mean by that is that they’re not breaking the law. That’s the threshold of an ethical business, and I think we need to raise the bar a little bit,” he said.
Cohen and Greenfield no longer run Ben & Jerry’s, but Greenfield says the company has held to its values by registering as a B-Corp, or Benefit Corporation. Benefit Corporations are businesses that value social responsibility and believe that the company should benefit not just a tiny cluster of shareholders but a broad base of stakeholders – from workers to farmers to the communities where the corporation does its business.
Greenfield is proud that even though he and Cohen aren’t at the helm of Ben & Jerry’s anymore, the company “has been outspoken about Black Lives Matter, and they continue to do very, very well in the marketplace.”
The lesson for other businesses, Greenfield said, is that “there is value in standing up for people who are not getting justice in this country.”