Thinx Controversy: Who Decides Which Rules Deserve Breaking?


The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories


When does fearlessly breaking the rules turn into recklessly crossing the line? Maybe it’s when a CEO repeatedly fondles an employee’s breasts in public. That’s what the former PR head of Thinx, which makes period-proof underwear for women, says the firm’s (now former) CEO, Miki Agrawal, did to her (New York). Agrawal says the charges are “baseless.”

Thinx is a headline-making New York-based startup with a deliberately transgressive approach to product and messaging. It sells underwear, but it also crusades on behalf of “girls in the developing world who don’t have access to menstrual products.” Its subway ads caused a stir, and Agrawal has a long track record of courting controversy. A key part of Thinx’s mission, Agrawal wrote on Medium, is to “break the period taboo once and for all.” As she put it to New York: “I just love the taboo space.”

But “taboo” isn’t a market “space.” It’s a name for actions and ideas that some part of society deems forbidden. Sometimes taboos just spread shame or enforce power imbalances. The “period taboo” is almost certainly one of those. But sometimes taboos protect people from exploitation and abuse. That would describe the rules and laws we have imperfectly developed to protect people from being sexually harassed in the workplace.

Rulebreakers who set out to challenge unjust social norms, as Agrawal did, need to be extra conscientious about upholding all the other social rules that serve justice — whether it’s providing employees with appropriate benefits or making sure the office is safe. However the Thinx story plays out, legally and commercially, it helps us all remember: Your mission to do good in one area doesn’t give you license to cut corners anywhere else.

Climate Change Starts in the Brain

Here’s one reason climate change is such a stubborn problem to address: Our brains weren’t designed to deal with it. You’re probably already aware of the argument that we’re wired to respond to imminent threats in our immediate environs, not long-term abstract perils that incrementally wreck our environment. But neurosurgeon Ann-Christine Duhaime also argues that our brains are preprogrammed to reward consumption (Harvard Business Review), which pushes the climate-change needle into the danger zone.

This reward system reinforces behavior patterns that, through our species’ history, has helped individuals survive. And so we eat more than we should, we crave novelty, we buy more than we need, and we accumulate junk — and this overconsumption pattern drives the carbon emissions that cause global temperatures to rise.

Resisting these forces through will power or factual argument is an uphill fight. We’re more likely to succeed, Duhaime argues, when we hitch a positive outcome to the reward system we have — as in encouraging reuse of old furniture by redefining pre-used as chic, or boosting electric vehicles’ appeal by making them sleek Teslas.

Enter the Zebra Company

Silicon Valley popularized the idea of “unicorn startups” — companies that soared to $1 billion-plus valuations before they ever went public. But maybe the growth-obsessed, disruptive mindset that drives founders’ unicorn quests is socially harmful and economically unsustainable. Maybe, Mara Zepeda, Jennifer Brandel, and Astra Scholz argue, startups should dream of being “zebras” instead (Quartz).

Unlike unicorns, they point out, zebras actually exist. They’re black and white — profit-seeking and socially conscious. Their behavior is “mutualistic” — they band together in supportive groups. They’re efficient and they have stamina.

Zepeda, Brandel, and Scholz propose more investment and experimentation in zebra-land, the grey zone between the for-profit corporation and the traditional non-profit. There’s plenty of energy and ideas there already. Now it’s going to take some dollars, too.

Grab Them By Their Laptops

The Trump administration’s disruption of international travel isn’t going to end anytime soon. The latest twist is a new laptop ban for people traveling to the U.S. from 10 airports in Muslim-majority countries — including international hubs like Cairo and Dubai. Dara Lind in Vox has a good rundown of the details: Basically, anything bigger than a phone, including tablets, laptops, and cameras, will need to be in checked luggage.

It’s entirely possible that the new rule is a response to a specific intelligence threat. But given the Trump team’s record, people are suspicious. It doesn’t help that all the airports affected are in predominantly Muslim locations, which makes the move seem like a “Muslim laptop ban.”

The rule is another sign that, in the age of Trump, the vision of a world where information and those who work with it can hop friction-free around the globe is ever more under attack. Sooner or later, this kind of policy will hit our phones, too. That’s when the protests will really get angry.

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