Refusing Customers is OK (2020 Mar)

by Barry A. Liebling

Custom made fleece-and-down vests made by Patagonia are a sought after status symbol for a sizable number of business executives. Companies order these vests – which display the name of the firm as well as the Patagonia logo – and award the garments as prizes to high performing employees.

Patagonia is renowned for its quality outdoor clothing and equipment and also for its commitment to the radical environmental movement. It donates money to institutions that are committed to fighting “climate change” (previously called global warming), and it supports political action aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating carbon emissions.

Patagonia has announced that it will take new orders for its coveted vests only from companies that can demonstrate they are fellow participants in its progressive leftist actions on environmental issues. Presumably that would exclude oil and coal companies as well as businesses that have relationships (including investments) with institutions that are not committed to the climate alarmism agenda. The company is intent on producing its customized vests only for “mission-driven companies that prioritize the planet.”

From a libertarian perspective Patagonia’s exclusion policy is acceptable. All business relationships should be based on mutual consent. If Patagonia does not want to deal with companies that support politics different from its own, it has a right to decline making customized vests.

Recently I observed a class of about 20 MBA students discussing the Patagonia case. Most of them agreed that Patagonia was on the right track by shunning companies that were not on board with the radical green agenda. Some students pointed out that Patagonia might be hurting its business because it is deliberately declining revenue from potential customers. A few students argued that the clothing manufacturer should fulfill orders from all customers – and not take into account their political orientation.

I am interested in how people (especially MBA students) arrive at their conclusions. So I reminded the group of a famous case. In 2012 Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado, refused to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The owner was a fundamentalist Christian and asserted that customizing a cake would violate his religious beliefs. It took years for the case to be resolved in favor of the baker, but the controversy remains. Does the baker have the same rights as Patagonia to select or reject customers?

Most of the students displayed an immediate, emotional reaction to the question. They asserted that the two cases are not at all comparable. They were disturbed that I asked it, since it suggests an inconsistency in their thinking. The majority of students said that Patagonia was doing the right thing because it was motivated by a philosophy of saving the planet. Some remarked that Patagonia’s action is likely to benefit all humanity.

By contrast, several students asserted, the Colorado baker is animated by malicious prejudice. He wants to ostracize gay people. While Patagonia has a noble philosophy, the baker is either thoughtless or deliberately villainous. Note that for some people Christian beliefs do not qualify as worthy of tolerance, but radical environmentalism is brimming with goodness, is based on “settled science,” and is not to be questioned.

In fairness there were a few students in the class who argued that the cases were essentially the same. Either it is alright to decide to accept or reject customers, or it is not. The principle should be applied equally to all situations. The one-standard-for-all students did not convince their peers.

An outside observer might conclude that most of the students in the class have to brush up on basic logic skills. But that is not true. They can usually think accurately when the subject is not political. But when the topic is something of interest to Social Justice Warriors, many students slide into a neo-Marxist way of reckoning. Essentially this means that people are classified according to their group identity (think class, race, gender, sexual orientation, commitment to leftist social change). Some groups are officially oppressed while others are oppressors. The rule is that every consideration should be given to the oppressed, while the oppressors deserve nothing but scorn and perpetual punishment.

So if Patagonia is shunning companies that are not part of the environmental alarmist movement, it should be commended for its positive action. But a Christian baker who declines to support gay marriage is an oppressor and a miscreant. A critic of neo-Marxism might say that it routinely exercises double standards. That is true, but Social Justice Warriors are proud of this because they regard treating people differently according to group membership as essential.

The fundamental issue is that group identity – contrary to neo-Marxist doctrine – should not count one way or the other when making judgments. When more people understand this, the corrupting influence of “social justice” will diminish. True fairness requires that everyone is subject to the same standards.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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