This 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. But the gesture was widely criticized as both tone deaf and woefully insufficient.
The Wayfair protest has become an inflection point in how consumers and employees interact with major corporations. Americans are desperate to channel their outrage over the emergency playing out at the U.S.-Mexico border, crisis management experts say, and are increasingly looking to companies to take a stand. The effects of President Trump’s immigration policies on migrant children, they say, transcends politics.
“For decades, the counsel was: Don’t touch politics, don’t get involved,” said Chris Allieri, a crisis management expert and founder of Mulberry & 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?”
The Trump administration has detained hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking asylum in the United States and has separated children as young as 4 months from their families. Detention centers on the Texas border are overflowing with children living in squalid conditions.
Outrage that had been mounting for months hit a critical point last week after lawyers and doctors reported that children at a Clint, Tex., border station had been denied beds, diapers, soap and other basics. They told of grade-schoolers caring for babies, and children covered in urine and lice. On Monday, the haunting image of a drowned Salvadoran man and his 1-year-old daughter, both lying face down in a river, added new urgency to the issue.
“Consumers no longer think of this as Democrats versus Republicans, or anti-Trump vs. pro-Trump,” Allieri said. “This has become a moral issue.”
Corporate boycotts, he said, have taken on new life during the Trump era. Campaigns like #WayfairWalkout, #DeleteUber and #GrabYourWallet took off quickly on social media.
That has 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 altogether. Bank of America this week became the latest Wall Street bank to say it would stop doing business with private prisons and detention centers. JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo took similar measures this 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 has yet to comment publicly on the $200,000 furniture sale to BCFS, a private contractor that operates detention centers in Texas. Employees wanted the company to refuse the order 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.
“We believe youth should sleep in beds with mattresses,” Evy Ramos, a spokeswoman for BCFS, said in an email.
On Wednesday, Wayfair executives informed its staff by email that they would donate $100,000 to the American Red Cross “to help those in dire need,” but employees said they expected more from the company.
“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, a retired teacher who lives near Denver. “The issue was their reaction. They are being silent in the face of atrocities, and this is how atrocities happen.”
Wayfair has taken sides before. The company was one of several advertisers to pull out from Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News after the television host publicly derided school shooting survivor David Hogg. As a result, some Trump supporters said on Facebook and Twitter that they would stop shopping at the company.
In an initial response to employees on Monday, Wayfair executives said that the company “as a mass-market brand, is oriented to serve a broad and diverse customer base.”
Wayfair, founded in 2002, has become an online giant with more than $7 billion in annual sales. The company markets its websites — which include Joss & Main, Birch Lane, AllModern and Perigold — as millennial-friendly alternatives to stodgy furniture chains. “Wayfair believes everyone should live in a home they love,” the company says on its site. “We believe that strong communities and good business are inextricably linked.”
Public relations experts say the company’s message is not aligned with its actions. A Wayfair spokeswoman declined requests to comment.
“Wayfair is saying one thing and doing another,” said Alysha Light, founder of Flight PR, a boutique public relations firm in Los Angeles. “They really missed the mark on this one.”
After nearly 550 of their employees signed the letter urging them to cancel the detention center order, company founders acknowledged their point of view.
“We agree that there is a crisis at the border and people there are in need,” company co-founders Steve Conine and Niraj Shah wrote, according to a copy of the email obtained by The Washington Post.
Allieri said the company could have done more.
“Wayfair has an opportunity to make this right, with a very, very succinct apology, a promise to do better and an immediate cancellation of any of these deals with organizations that serve detention centers,” Allieri said. “Anything shy of that is not enough.”