Unfortunately last week IKEA, the Swedish home furnishing company famed for its easily assembled furniture and deliciously horsey meatballs, failed to take a stand for equality and inclusion when it removed an interview of a lesbian couple from its Russian IKEA catalog. Such behavior by a multinational corporation is not all that new, and for IKEA apparently standard operating procedure following the removal of women from a Saudi Arabia catalog in 2012. But exclusion of a lesbian couple that was deemed appropriate for countries that neighbor Russia to its west, but not in Russia, is wrong and special. While their stance is a legally defendable position, it remains nonetheless a morally deplorable decision by IKEA's Russian legal team and, clearly, its management. The explanations given, that they obey the laws of Russia, are not good enough. Their decision will indubitably make its LGBT consumers in the EU, U.S., and other democracies that support human rights think twice before they set foot in an IKEA store ever again.
For a company that originated in a country that is a leader in human rights, IKEA's decision to remove a lesbian couple from its Russia catalog is sad. During the Cold War Western companies were part of the ethos of the free world. Coca-Cola, Levi's jeans and indeed IKEA were symbols for many people fighting against illiberal regimes behind the Iron Curtain including Russia.
The situation of the LGBT community in Russia is likely to turn from bad to worse. LGBT persons have been singled out by the regime and by supporters of President Vladimir Putin as the useful enemy from within. The treatment of LGBT persons is of course just a symptom of the democratic backsliding. Some will cite Putin's efforts to speak out against intolerance over the past couple of weeks as evidence of his progress and enlightened nature; however, the fact remains that within Russia homophobia is rampant. His statements are just window dressing, a preemptive strike to calm the brewing storm in the lead up to the Sochi Olympics that commence on February 7, 2014.
Putin's decision to support and sign the Anti-Propaganda Law making "overt homosexual behavior" dangerous to society and thus a punishable act falls in line with his overall views of democracy and human rights. He succumbed to the ultra-conservative and extreme forces in Russia, including to pressure from the less enlightened forces of the Orthodox Church when he threw his support behind the Anti-Propaganda Law and signed it into law in June. It's a piece of legislation that has put enormous pressure on LGBT persons and their families.
One should be very careful. No society can be or should be branded as homophobic. Homophobia is a result of history, culture and indeed the wrong kind of leadership by political elites. Thus it can be influenced for the better or for worse. Russians, rightly so, pride themselves on being a nation of high culture. They proudly own Tchaikovsky or Diaghilev, who are among the many great Russian artists considered to be universal treasures. These universal treasures happened to be gay.
Executives of Western companies operating in Russia face a tough dilemma: to be silent and acquiescent or take a stance in support of LGBT rights. Of course, they have a business to run. But they should think about the future. In the "West," it has fortunately become bad business to be homophobic. Do recall: seventy years after the Holocaust, companies are still haunted by their complicit involvement or plain complacency and silence. Ask IBM. A strong stance by western companies will help the Russian President reverse his course.
With LGBT consumers expected to have untapped spending potential worth $800 billion, companies need to put their money where their mouth is regarding LGBT rights and human rights as a whole. Even though companies may be under pressure in Russia, this does not absolve them of their corporate social responsibilities. No double standards! Companies must play an important role in affecting norms and indeed values across the globe.
For the private sector in general and for multinationals specifically, who increasingly play a pivotal role in the realm of international relations, this means not shying away from moral responsibilities. In the case of companies like IKEA who affect the lives of millions of families, straight or gay, directly every day in Russia this is especially important. Companies need to voice their support for values that they embrace at home and in a smart way push back against repressive measures like the Anti-Propaganda Law. Multinational businesses need to embrace their role as cultural emissaries, and make the conscientious decision to protect, represent, and where possible advocate for those consumers and employees whom are unable to do so for themselves. Their stance can help change the law. Their cowardice on the other hand will only further encourage anti-LGBT attitudes.
IKEA should reverse its decision to remove the lesbian couple's interview from their Russian catalog. Don't make our recent IKEA purchase our last.