When Companies Should — and Shouldn’t — Back Down


If you want your company to create positive change, you have to pick fights worth fighting. In recent days, we’ve covered genuine scandals, like Zenefits’ scheme to hoodwink regulators, and we’ve shared the lessons from companies that have had to grow past scandals and mature in public. But sometimes a clueless response by a company can elevate a kerfuffle into a genuine scandal — and that can yield useful lessons. One such lesson comes from an unexpected source: Lands’ End.

The venerable catalog marketer learned that standing for something isn’t easy, especially if what you’re standing for doesn’t connect to your core mission and might not even be intentional. Lands’ End CEO Federica Marchionni interviewed Gloria Steinem as part of a series called “Legends” in its spring catalog. It was a friendly, deferential conversation, not particularly deep and with no revelations or provocations. Steinem is a feminist and publishing pioneer, but a number of groups and individuals with anti-abortion views called out Lands’ End on the interview (even though there was no talk about abortion in it). Some called for a boycott. Shortly thereafter, Lands’ End released a statement:

“Lands’ End is committed to providing our loyal customers and their families with stylish, affordable, well-made clothing … It was never our intention to raise a divisive political or religious issue … We sincerely apologize for any offense.”

Was that caving? That’s the position from groups and individuals on the other side of the abortion issue as they call for their own Lands’ End boycott. A quick trip to Facebook shows that neither side is happy with the company. And all over an issue — reproductive rights — that is not even remotely part of Lands’ End’s mission. If the company has a strong commitment to feminist issues, Steinem is precisely the person it wants to feature in its catalog. If not, it’s unclear what benefit the company gets.

For too many companies, connecting the business to the world at large is a mere public relations exercise, a pink ribbon it distributes on occasion. That’s not just because business leaders feel their primary allegiance is to the bottom line; it’s because creating or just supporting positive change is hard. Even obvious things to improve health can attract vocal detractors. If you only stand for something that no one would ever disagree with, you’re not standing for anything. Bravo to you for wanting to do more than just sell stuff, but not everyone will believe that your plan for improving the world will actually improve the world.

If you’re going to provoke, do it on a core issue for your company. Sustainability seems to be that issue for Lands’ End. Losing customers because they disagree with Lands’ End’s sustainability policies would be acceptable because sustainability connects directly to the company’s mission and strategy. If it’s a topic that’s not particularly important to a company, something you’d sooner apologize for than defend, why are you going there? If you don’t plan to work at convincing people as part of making change, you’re not really doing the hard work of making change.

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