As an American Sustainable Business Council letter against the immigration ban attracts 140 signatures, companies say the new administration’s extreme policies have put them in a precarious position
The American Sustainable Business Council has thrown its weight behind the growing opposition to Donald Trump’s immigration ban on nationals from seven mainly Muslim countries, launching a national sign-on letter for business leaders to register their protest against a ban that “demeans our American principles and values”.
The letter, which garnered 140 signatures within 24 hours of being circulated on Thursday, reads in part: “As American business leaders and employers, we stand in opposition to the recent executive order on immigration.We believe the climate of fear and uncertainty that it fosters in our customers, our employees, and our communities will be damaging to business. The proposed ban undermines the interconnections and workforce mobility upon which we depend.”
David Levine, CEO and co-founder of the ASBC, said banning immigration is “dangerous to America's competitiveness and prosperity. … We call on President Trump to pull back this executive order and focus on more pressing issues, such as responsible economic growth to build a new middle class.” On Friday the federal courts suspended the travel ban after two states argued it was unconstitutional, a decision upheld by the appeals court after being challenged by the Trump administration, but the administration will be back in court on Monday trying to get the suspension reversed.
The ASBC's letter was released a day before a group of 64 SRI and faith investors and human rights groups sent a strongly worded letter to the 19 company executives on Trump’s strategic and policy forum, calling on them to speak out strongly against the ban and “use your influence to ensure that human rights are promoted not only through your business activities but through your engagement with the federal government”. The letter was coordinated by the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, the Institute for Human Rights and Business and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility.
These interventions came at the end of a week of unprecedented reaction from US companies after Trump signed the executive order, with Google, Amazon, Starbucks, Facebook, Nike, Coca-Cola and Ford among the dozens of leading companies to step forward to publically denounce the executive order.
Apple’s CEO Tim Cook told the Wall Street Journal his company was considering legal action to have Trump’s executive order reversed, while Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz said in a public letter to employees he plans to hire 10,000 refugees.
Even CEOs of some companies that are seen as being close to the Trump administration have voiced disapproval. Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, whose former president, Gary Cohn, is on Trump’s strategic and policy forum, spoke of the potential for disruption to Wall Street’s most powerful bank in a voicemail to employees, while Iranian-Canadian Tesla founder Elon Musk, who is also on Trump’s advisory council, tweeted: "Many people negatively affected by this policy are strong supporters of the US … and don't deserve to be rejected." Musk also took to Twitter to justify his membership of Trump's advisory board, pledging to advise on amendments to the ban.
In the highly charged political environment, big US brands face a "damned if you do, damned if you don’t" quandary about speaking out about the ban. Companies have been subject to both pro- and anti-ban consumer boycotts, with the hashtag #BoycottStarbucks trending on Twitter and an equally angry #deleteUber campaign going viral after the ride-hailing service temporarily cut its pricing to take advantage of an anti-ban boycott by yellow cab drivers at New York’s JFK. Meanwhile Uber competitor Lyft increased Uber’s discomfiture by pledging $1m to the American Civil Liberties Union over the next four years.
Uber tried to limit the damage, announcing that it had set up a $3m legal fund for immigrant drivers. Yesterday the company’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, resigned from Trump’s advisory board, saying in an email to staff: “Joining the group was not meant to be an endorsement of the president or his agenda but unfortunately it has been misinterpreted to be exactly that.”
To find out how other US companies are navigating this minefield, Ethical Corporation earlier this week asked some of the participants in our Responsible Business Summit in New York, 27-28 March to respond to three questions:
1: Do you believe CEOs should adopt a stance like Elon Musk, who is on Trump’s advisory board and is taking the role of a critical friend, trying to come up with some constructive amendments, or should they follow the likes of Nike, Starbucks, and Silicon Valley firms, who have been extremely critical.
2: What are the risks for companies that publically take on the Trump administration? What are the risks for those who sit on the fence?
3: If you were asked to sit on Trump’s advisory board, would you accept?
One respondent, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “I think at this juncture there is room for both “critical friends” and extreme criticism. It is too early in the new administration to assume that constructive criticism is a waste of time. Failing to provide some alternatives may simply accelerate the polarisation. The president (or at least his advisers) are clearly signalling that they are “taking names” and a public stance assuredly creates some risk. While sitting on the fence may be indefensible at some point (or on some issues) from the standpoint of customers/consumers it likely carries less risk than being out front.”
On the question of whether he would sit on Trump’s advisory board, the respondent said: “I cannot even imagine shaking the hands of some of his advisers. If President Trump can act and speak more moderately then he might earn enough trust for corporate leaders to engage with him.”
David Levine of the ASBC said: "With the shift in the political landscape, we are seeing a need for business leaders to publicly affirm their company’s values in a way that’s new. Before, CEOs and other executives have tended to keep their political opinions – and contributions – private. But now, like never before, they are seeing that their business responsibility is to speak out and take public stands. Employees, customers and other stakeholders need to see a business opposing public policies that undermine the essential values that should be driving our economy and society."
He added: "For companies that are economically, socially and environmentally responsible, these values are universal human values, not left or right, or liberal or conservative. They are good for business and society. Organisations like ASBC are bringing business organisations and companies together so there will be strength in numbers, and each business can feel safer in the stands that they take.”
Susan McPherson of CR consultancy McPherson Strategies, pointed out that companies that went public this week with commitments to hire refugees or fund causes to support them did so for a variety of reasons. “There is also the distinction between what CEOs support/critique privately [or in their own name], vs what they put out on behalf of the company.”
‘Companies must temper Trump’
She said the extreme positions taken by the new administration had put companies in a precarious position, opening them up to criticism from stakeholders and customers. “Companies are working hard toward developing stronger and more authentic relationships with their consumers, so for a company that is socially conscious to not address the political situation may leave their base wondering if they are a brand that aligns with their values. We are living in such uncertain times and clearly don’t have a sense of what the next four years (or even four weeks) looks like. … There is a way to address the issues in a productive and positive way without being critical of Trump and the administration directly, but it clearly is a precarious route.”
On the question of whether she would work with Trump as an advisor, McPherson said she would likely decline, but she added: “I’m also not so naive to realise that knowledgeable and rational minds are needed to be working with this administration to prevent total chaos. [I am] hoping there are others who will be able to accept and hopefully temper the latest happenings, or our future may be bleak.”
Trump immigration executive order Starbucks Tesla Uber SRI CSR Human rights