A few weeks ago, the nation watched the kind of Super Bowl it wasn’t prepared for: a match of corporate wars and commercial stalemates. Almost 100 companies, many of them Silicon Valley giants including Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, filed an amicus brief denouncing President Donald Trump’s immigration ban, which temporarily bars immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. AirBnB said it will provide free housing to refugees and all those affected by the ban. Starbucks, in an uncharacteristic stroke of community action, said it will hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years.
Across America, companies have become a proxy for politics. Lyft and Uber, have too. As of Jan. 25, Lyft began offering its services in San Luis Obispo.
As close substitutes, Lyft and Uber have often come head to head. Recently however, their fight escalated. After the immigration ban, a taxi driver union in New York went on strike at Kennedy Airport in solidarity with the protestors. About a half hour after the protest, Uber dropped their surge pricing feature. Accusations that Uber intended to profit off the situation ensued like wildfire. More than 200,000 people rallied to delete their Uber accounts and are encouraging others to jump aboard onto Lyft.
Economists and historians studied this phenomenon, which many call a new form of social activism through consumption. Economics professor Eduardo Zambrano puts it more precisely: ordinary goods, like eggs, water and transportation, are more and more becoming what he and other economists call “experience goods.”
“It used to be that when people bought cereal, they were just buying cereal; as long as it was tasty, that’s all you cared about,” Zambrano said.
But as consumers gained access to more information on labor practices, nutritional information and larger political structures, ordinary goods, like cereal, became a part of an origin story — where it came from, how it was made, which business practices were in place, etc. As a result, the “good” stopped being judged on its visible characteristics, like price and taste, and instead on “conceptual characteristics,” or the personalities of the corporations which produced them.
With the help of branding, abstract corporate personalities are the new 14 ft. billboard. The events of that demonstrate the growing pressure on corporations to ‘get with the political program’ or take a stance. History professor Sarah Bridger says this isn’t anything new.
“There’s a long history of companies connecting themselves to political issues,” she said.
Ben & Jerry’s is one of them. Founded in 1978, the company was a major corporate force for activism — it gave 7.5 percent of its pre-tax profits to charity and supported environmental and peace programs — all until it was acquired by the multinational conglomerate Unilever for $326 million in 2000. Massive protests resulted.
Bridger says protests and boycotts have been cornerstones of consumer culture and activism even since the American Revolution.
But under the structure of capitalism, they’re full of caveats. Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick eventually stepped down from his position on Trump’s Economic Advisory Board, an action which didn’t wholly exonerate him. Sure enough, as people dropped their Uber accounts into the fire of justice, it flamed once again: two major shareholders in Lyft are also major supporters of and advisers to Trump.
As a consumer who uses neither Lyft nor Uber, Bridger can’t help but see the irony of the inferno. She says that in some ways, Lyft and Uber are both economically destabilizing. They offer certain kinds of economic opportunities to their employees, but with almost no benefits or guaranteed incomes. They’ve also unequivocally changed an ecosystem which at one time gave taxi drivers economic stability.
“Whether people use Uber or Lyft because of one small action that Uber took that seemed to undercut a movement against Trump’s immigration ban, I totally get that argument,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean that I think that Lyft somehow has emerged as some incredibly magnanimous champion of people’s rights. Maybe they feel that way or maybe they just see an opportunity here to present themselves in a certain way.”
Lyft said it will donate $1 million to the ACLU. Uber vows to create a $3 million defense fund for drivers affected by the immigration ban. Consumers are apt to wonder if their efforts are entirely wholesome.
Philosophy professor Ryan Jenkins studies the ethics of technology and said one thing is clear: There’s alot of noise that needs to be separated from the signal. The politicization of consumerism, he said, has led to a chaotic and confusing marketplace.
“I can imagine being a marketer and just thinking, ‘Well, I’ve got a hundred thousand tweets that tell me ‘x’, and a hundred thousand tweets that tell me to do the opposite of ‘x.’ What the hell am I supposed to do? I wish I could roll the clock back ten years when this wasn’t a problem,” he said.
Jenkins said companies are put in bizarre positions where they become a medium for political messages.
“When I go to the grocery store, the list of companies I’m not supposed to buy from and the list of ingredients I’m supposed to try to avoid, either for health reasons or for moral reasons, just keeps growing larger and larger,” he said. “It becomes an increased psychological demand on me when all I’m trying to do is buy peanut butter.”
Scenes like this are at the forefront for agricultural and environmental plant sciences senior Haley Fuller. Fuller dedicated her time to considering these psychological demands and finding ways for them to align with her personal ethics. When consuming, Fuller’s mainly concerned for the environment and animal welfare. She’s vegan, with the exception of eggs she buys from Los Osos, and doesn’t buy anything from large corporations. She bikes almost everywhere.
But it’s hard. Fuller and her roommates try to lead a zero waste lifestyle and in October, they took it to the extreme.
“It made me realize that the ease and convenience with which we can access products is crazy,” she said. “It makes it way too easy to not think about the ethics behind your purchases.”
Fuller said she tries her best to stay away from companies involved politically in things she doesn’t agree with, but has become increasingly disenchanted.
“I’ve lost faith in large companies and their ability to have ethical practices and truly practice what they preach,” she said. “I’ve seen and heard about so many companies who get exposed for backing environmental controversies or not compensating their workers fairly and it’s just disappointing.”
Jenkins said a skepticism like Fuller describes is growing.
“It’s sort of a perverse suggestion to say that if we just do capitalism in the right way, we’ll be able to solve all these problems,” he said.
Because of recent political events, companies like AirBnB and Lyft are aggrandized as ones who stand up and resist. Bridger is a bit cynical.
“It’s a low stakes decision for Lyft and AirBnB to say they’re opposed to a refugee ban,” she said. “They don’t have anything to lose there.”
Bridger acknowledges these public stances aren’t meaningless; they have the power to filter upward, inspire others to mobilize and create upwellings of change, sometimes. However, for the companies themselves, they’re relatively low stakes.
“It would be interesting if Trump or Republicans in Congress came up with legislation that was friendly to companies like Airbnb or Lyft — what position would they take? Most likely, they’re going to act with their self interest,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this article said, ” About a half hour after the protest, Uber dropped their surge pricing feature after accusations that Uber intended to profit off the situation ensued like wildfire.” The sentence has been corrected to say, ” About a half hour after the protest, Uber dropped their surge pricing feature. Accusations that Uber intended to profit off the situation ensued like wildfire. “