Macy’s: “Highly recommended.”
Amazon: “Better options are available.”
Home Depot: “Please shop elsewhere.”
Those reviews aren’t talking about customer service, shipping options or holiday deals. Instead, the rankings belong to a new startup sizing up companies' political contributions to Democratic campaigns.
The DC-based startup, Progressive Shopper, has set out to mine political spending from hundreds of major brands. The site shows shoppers what percentage of a company’s political spending went to Democrats and Republicans in the 2018 and 2016 election cycles. If a company is deemed too far in the red, Progressive Shopper offers a list of competitors where you might also find that sweater or sofa, but from a more left-leaning brand. So far, co-founders Mark Hanis and Van Chappell have culled data from more than 500 companies -- from Walmart to T-Mobile to General Motors.
Progressive Shopper, which launched this month, arrives as a slew of companies have come under pressure to either distance themselves from charged political issues or take a stand. In November, Walmart, Boston Scientific and Union Pacific all asked for returns on campaign donations to Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi. On a campaign stop, Hyde-Smith had said that if a local rancher standing next to her “invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Over the past year, Greyhound was pulled into debates over the White House’s immigration policy as Border Patrol agents continued to search its buses. And after 17 people were killed at a Parkland, Fla., high school, a slew of companies cut ties with the National Rifle Association or changed their policies on gun sales.
The site doesn’t hide its liberal tilt -- the company’s logo is a jumping donkey with a shopping bag in its mouth. But Hanis and Chappell say they felt urged by Donald Trump’s presidency to show shoppers how their favorite brands stand up politically. And they hope that the data will encourage people to support companies that share their values -- and back away from ones that don’t.
“We realized pretty quickly that people shop far more than they vote, far more than they donate, more than they advocate or lobby," Hanis said. “This was an amazing opportunity...to get people to take progressive action through their consumer behavior.”
Political donations made by corporations and their employees are all publicly available through the Federal Election Commission. But those records are kept in dense databases that aren’t very user friendly. And the data aren’t always clean. For example, Chappell said that a Delta Air Lines employee who makes a campaign donation could cite his or her employer as “Delta," “Delta Air Lines" or some other option altogether. It takes extra legwork to get an accurate picture of how a company’s employees square politically, and if their spending matches that of the company.
“Imagine a consumer trying to make sense of that,” Chappell said. “There’s no way they’re going to invest their time to figure that out.”
Progressive Shoppers' pitch is to make the data as accessible as possible. Spreadsheets are swapped out for color-coded charts of red, purple and blue.
Shoppers can download Progressive Shopper’s Google Chrome extension, a small software program that tailors Chrome functions. Once the extension is downloaded, a shopper can go to Costco’s website, for example, and find a small blue flag in the top right corner. A blue flag indicates that a company and its employees give primarily to Democrats.
Clicking on the flag opens a more specific window. For Costco, the window shows that 93 percent of overall donations went to Democrats, that no PAC donations were made and that 93 percent of employee donations went to Democrats. A tab shows how Costco’s competitors shape up. Ebay, for example, ranks purple, while Overstock shows up red.
(For companies that haven’t yet been added to the site, a smaller grey flag appears.)
Hanis and Chappell aren’t stopping at the 500 brands in the system. They’re looking to add data from state and local campaigns and to drill down on specific policy issues that companies support.
Progressive Shopper wants to follow the money.
“This ‘public part’ of the company is one thing,” Hanis said. But donations "don’t always support what they’re publicly saying.”
Even for shoppers who lean to the right, Hanis and Chappell said there’s value to having this information out there for easy reference. But they hope consumers actually change their shopping habits. Granted, they know this won’t happen in all situations. A passenger with free upgrades on one airline, for example, won’t necessarily switch to another, bluer carrier.
It’s nothing new for companies to make campaign donations. But increasingly, major brands can’t assume that their political spending won’t come to the surface, said Anthony Johndrow, a corporate reputation adviser. Rather than only react to controversies, companies have to work under the assumption that consumers are always watching. Johndrow called the Hyde-Smith donations “the wake-up call.”
In years past, companies “assume they can get away with the status quo,” Johndrow said, “which is to spread money around where you feel the need to politically, and that’s off most peoples' radar.”
“That was the old world we lived in," he said. “And transparency is the new world.”