Written by Stephanie Yang
It’s October 2016—one month away from arguably the most controversial presidential election in recent history. The tension in the air is palpable. Susan Coulter, founder of the #GrabYourWallet movement, is browsing through the website of an American luxury department store, Nordstrom. Instead of retail therapy, however, Coulter is overwhelmed by a sense of guilt: earlier that week, the Washington Post released leaked Access Hollywood footage of Donald Trump. In the footage, Trump boasts about being able to sexually harass women because of his star status. Most notably, Trump said his celebrity power allowed him to “grab them women by the p–sy”.
Fast forward to Coulter, who notices on Nordstrom’s website Ivanka Trump’s own line of apparel displayed for all to buy.
In that moment, the #GrabYourWallet movement was born, a massive boycott of the businesses selling Trump products. Its website details which businesses carry Trump’s or his family’s products, public relations contacts, as well as which companies have been dropped from the list for dumping Trump products from their offerings. The goal is not to punish companies but to help them understand the moral values of their consumers and provide a clear way to remove themselves from the list.
One of the top ten companies listed is L.L. Bean, caught in a storm of controversy after Linda Bean, heiress of the company and member of the Board of Directors, addressed the boycott on national television. Bean expressed concern that she and her company were being bullied by the movement for her political leanings. In response to a Fox morning segment, Donald Trump took to Twitter:
The tweet drew mixed reactions. Many viewed it as an inappropriate and unethical endorsement of a private business by a U.S. President. Others, who supported the President, went out to buy L.L.Bean products. Overall, Trump’s tweet was a clear representation of the highly polarized dynamics among President Trump, businesses and American consumers.
Silicon Valley has most recently been vocal about Trump’s policies, particularly those regarding the initial controversial executive order that placed a ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has been caught in a flurry of criticism for both hindering the protests at JFK through surge-pricing and for being on the Trump advisory team. Consumers responded to Uber’s decision to surge prices with the #DeleteUber movement on social media. That same evening, Uber’s rideshare competitor, Lyft, pledged to donate $1 million over the next four years to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in support of the refugee crisis. Another member of the startup community and CEO of Airbnb, Brian Chesky, has stated that Airbnb will house refugees for free. CEOs of powerhouses Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft, have all reacted to the ban, but in varying intensities—from softly criticizing the order to physically protesting against Trump. Google co-founder Sergey Brin was seen protesting at San Francisco International Airport and quoted as saying: “I’m here because I’m a refugee”.
While corporations are taking charge, where does the responsibility of consumers lie? As many students here at Stern have learned, companies are extremely invested in engaging with their stakeholders. In an era of chaos and confusion, how are we reacting with our dollars, if at all? Does the student body even believe we can make a tangible impact with our purchases, or is our collective status as ‘broke, hungry college students’ too strong to make us change our purchasing behavior?
Despite some students’ disagreements with President Trump’s actions and policies, many believe there is little they can do with their dollars. One Stern sophomore, studying Finance and Sustainable Business, says, “Although I am not very happy with Trump, I cannot afford to shop somewhere that will cost me more in terms of time and money simply because they carry the brand of someone I do not share the same views with….Because we have to live to budget both our time and money as college students, I do not believe we can afford to effect change with our dollar unless there is a similar substitute.”
That said, college students, categorized within the Millennial Generation, have a growing amount of buying power, especially as they approach financial independence. A boycott like #GrabYourWallet seems to put students in a precarious situation, conflicted between the social issues they believe in and the number in their bank accounts. A senior at Stern, concentrating in Finance and Marketing, further illustrates this point: “College students are actually an interesting age group to study because on one hand, we feel extra compelled and tied to social movements and efforts, and it is a group that is actually some of the key drivers and influencers for brands and products. However, at the same time college students’ purchasing power could be quite limited in terms of access, dependent on location as well as finances. Given this limited access, I think college students that do make a statement by boycotting would definitely feel strongly towards the social issue”.
Since the inception of the #GrabYourWallet boycott, many big retailers, such as Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Kmart, have dropped Trump products from their sales racks. However, businesses’ alignment with the boycott remains somewhat murky. For example, Nordstrom cited dropping Ivanka’s line due to “poor sales”, with many other retailers releasing similar statements. According to the #GrabYourWallet website, 23 companies have been removed from the boycott list, while 54 companies remain due to varying levels of ties with Trump.
At the same time, does it really matter? A Stern junior majoring in Finance chimes in: “Trump won’t nearly care as much as employees laid off or self-righteous white feminists do about feigning political agency and activism through spending…. it’s a luxury to have a choice in spending but I don’t think a very useful or effective one”. The student continues, “Radical change doesn’t come from boycotting some subset of brands that barely did stuff wrong… it probably comes from unlearning consumerism altogether, actually going to vote, violent protest, winning power over the decades, etc.”
Watching the #GrabYourWallet movement unfold has been fascinating, especially as we consumers watch the businesses from which we buy scramble to take a stance while trying not to ostracize the other side. Even at Stern, where students learn the importance of stakeholder engagement, students seem to be relatively ambivalent towards consumer boycotts. In the coming months, it will be interesting to see whether or not purposeful consumer spending will impact the administration’s future policies.