Jude Smith spent hundreds of dollars on a bed frame and headboard from Wayfair last month. But after learning that the company was doing business with a detention camp that houses migrant children, he said he’d never shop there again.
“What is happening at the border is an atrocity,” said Smith, 43, who lives in Boston. “I’m not going to support a company that’s OK with holding people in cages.”
Last week the online furniture giant became the latest lightning rod for consumer outrage on a broader societal issue. Hundreds of its employees staged a walkout after rallying public support for their protest on social media. Though the Boston company declined calls to reject the sale, it donated $100,000 to charity as an apparent compromise.
The Wayfair protest has become an inflection point in how consumers and employees interact with major corporations.
“For decades, the counsel was: Don’t touch politics, don’t get involved,” said Chris Allieri, a crisis management expert and founder of Mulberry and Astor, a public relations firm in New York. “But that’s no longer enough. Today’s companies need to have a moral compass. They need to ask themselves: What side of history do we want to be on?”
That’s prompted some companies to take a more proactive approach to insulate their brands from such movements, be it the crisis playing out at the border or the incarceration industry. Bank of America last week became the latest to say it would stop doing business with private prisons and detention centers. JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo made similar announcements last year.
“We’re at a point where people want to know about a company’s soul,” said Sandy Lish, co-founder of the Castle Group, a public relations firm in Boston. “People want to know what a company stands for.”
Wayfair employees wanted the company to refuse the $200,000 furniture sale to BCFS, a private contractor, or at least donate the profits — estimated to be about $86,000 — to Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a Texas-based nonprofit organization that provides legal services to immigrants.
On Wednesday, Wayfair executives informed staff members via email that they would donate $100,000 to the American Red Cross “to help those in dire need.”
“Wayfair has struck a real nerve here,” Allieri said. “It’s rare that we have a consumer goods company that is so connected with something like a detention center for children.
“They’re selling us pretty bedspreads for our homes, but wait, they’re also supplying beds to these detention centers where we’ve seen pictures of children in cages. This is the antithesis of what a brand should stand for.”
Paula Reed, who has spent thousands of dollars on beds, towels and sheets from Wayfair, says she will no longer buy from the company. The issue, she said, isn’t so much that it is supplying furniture to detention camps, but that it has yet to take a public stand.
“It wasn’t like they said, ‘Look, these kids need beds and we can provide those at an affordable price,’ ” said Reed, 57, who lives near Denver. “The issue was their reaction. They are being silent in the face of atrocities, and this is how atrocities happen.”