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Corporation Culture Wars

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By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service

(RNS) When you buy a pair of shoes, a spicy chicken sandwich, or a gym membership, does that mean you endorse everything about the company -- including the CEO's religious beliefs?

It's a question that has long plagued socially conscious consumers, but sites like Change.org now mobilize grassroots campaigns against companies like Curves fitness centers, whose CEO donates millions to anti-abortion groups, and Chick-fil-A, a fast-food chain that supports faith-based groups opposed to same-sex relationships.

While protests haven't stopped those corporate leaders from supporting conservative Christian agendas, the head of TOMS shoes has felt compelled to apologize for agreeing to a June 30 interview with Focus on the Family president Jim Daly.

Blake Mycoskie, 34, an evangelical Christian, founded TOMS in 2006, promising every pair would be made with fair labor and would provide a second pair for a needy child.

The for-profit California-based company, which has given away more than a million pairs of shoes, is popular on the West Coast, particularly with young adults attracted to no-frills fashions and social justice activities.

After gay-rights and feminist groups criticized Mycoskie and his customers threatened a boycott, the CEO apologized on Saturday (July 9).

"Had I known the full extent of Focus on the Family's beliefs, I would not have accepted the invitation to speak at their event," he wrote on his Start Something That Matters blog.

Comments on his blog and Facebook page doubted that Mycoskie was ignorant of Focus' activism against homosexuality, especially since some had warned him when the event was first advertised.

TOMS could opt to block the radio broadcast of the interview, but as of Wednesday, Focus still hopes to air the 45-minute program this fall, reaching up to 2.8 million listeners.

"We approached TOMS because Blake attracts a certain audience and because his story is inspirational," said Gary Schneeberger, a Focus spokesman. "The idea that out of his faith, as a Christian, he created this company, we thought this was inspiring and was something our listeners would like to hear."

Mycoskie has credited faith as inspiring his business, but the TOMS website proclaims the company is nonpolitical and nonreligious.

"While we are happy to work with organizations from all religious and political backgrounds, we prohibit the giving of our shoes from being associated with any religious or political ideology," the website states. In its application materials, the company requires potential partners to agree they won't try to convert aid recipients or require them to participate in any kind of religious activity to receive shoes.

Companies and their leaders are free to support religious or political causes, but Chris MacDonald, a business ethicist affiliated with Duke University's Kenan Institute for Ethics, said consumers should take such actions into account.

"If you have a sense that your money is somehow, even indirectly, contributing to a cause that you find morally problematic, then it seems somewhere between reasonable and obligatory for you to vote with your dollars," he said. "Your individual purchasing decision isn't doing a lot to further the cause of the company's CEO -- maybe just a few pennies -- but there's also symbolic value, and you're responsible for that."

In the past, consumer complaints over gay issues were more likely to come from conservative Christian groups, with organizations like the American Family Association objecting to the corporate policies of companies like Walgreens, Wal-Mart and Proctor & Gamble.

It's one thing to put your money where your mouth is, but it's not practical for consumers to avoid doing business with any companies whose policies or leaders support opposing religious or political beliefs, MacDonald said.

"A lot of people like the idea of companies being socially involved in their community," he said, "but if you want big companies to get involved in social issues, what makes you think they're going to come down on your side?"

Gay rights petitions have achieved limited success in the past year: Apple pulled apps for conservative groups like Exodus International and the Manhattan Declaration from its iTunes store, and Chick-fil-A's president issued a statement that "while my family and I believe in the biblical definition of marriage, we love and respect anyone who
disagrees."

The quick, direct apology from TOMS is an anomaly, MacDonald said, speculating that the company's small size and social responsibility mission made it vulnerable to criticism from its core audience.

In comparison, left-wing protests against Whole Foods, whose CEO came out against health care reform two years ago, haven't had a noticeable impact on the supermarket chain.

Focus on the Family is "not unfamiliar with being protested," but this is the first time that a business leader has felt compelled to publicly apologize and possibly withdraw from its program, Schneeberger said.

"People have to make their buying decisions based on their own values and consciousness. That's America," he said. "(But) that is a little bit troubling and kind of chilling as we look ahead, because we have to wonder what people will say we're not fit to do next, if we're not fit to put shoes on the feet of impoverished children."

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