Beware Wallet Power With Social Issues

Social protesters can affect public and corporate policies.

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Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s unfortunate political gaffe has shown, once again, the power of the pocketbook when it comes to socially aware buying and changing attitudes.

His support for a “religious freedom” bill that would allow businesses to discriminate against gays and lesbians has sparked a national firestorm, with firms such as Wal-Mart and Marriott quickly jumping in to say they don’t discriminate against homosexuals.

It comes at a bad time for Hoosiers because Indianapolis is supposed to play host to the Final Four NCAA basketball matches, which The Washington Post says could bring $70 million to that area. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has said, tongue-in-cheek, that gays and lesbians are welcome to move from Indiana to Virginia.

But this is hardly the first time that socially committed people have turned to their economic clout to affect public policy or large corporations. They've drummed up publicity or lobbied boards of directors of companies to change their ways or convinced boards of banks or schools not to invest in questionable and damaging projects.

The hottest example in Virginia right now is at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, where a student group called DIVEST UMW is trying to convince the Board of Visitors not to put college money in companies that use polluting coal.

“There are thousands losing their lives and livelihoods each day because of climate change, and they don’t have the ability to have their voices heard. We have that privilege,” Zacharia Kronemer told USA Today. UMW’s protests have been joined by students from Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Virginia.

Altria and Philip Morris USA, both based in the Richmond area, long have been targets of shareholder activism because of the deadly cigarettes they manufacture and peddle.

LGBT issues have cropped up in the past. In 1990, for instance, the ACT UP pro-gay group boycotted Philip Morris because it supported Jesse Helms, the late North Carolina senator who opposed funding for AIDS research and treatment.

Dominion is the target of many green investor groups for its use of fossil fuel and its tough tactics in forcing surveys of a new $5 billion pipeline it wants to build.

Notorious coal giant Massey Energy, formerly based in Richmond, caught hell from protesters and green shareholder activist groups for its mountaintop removal, mine safety and climate change policies. The company fell apart after 29 miners were killed at one of its West Virginia mines five years ago this Sunday. Its former chief executive, Donald Blankenship, is scheduled to go on criminal trial in Beckley, West Virginia, on April 20 for charges related to the disaster.

And, of course, there's the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC. This group of conservative lobbyists, funded by the activist right-wing brothers Charles and David Koch, gives templates of draft state laws to legislatures across the country, including Virginia.

Ihe idea is to get laws rubber-stamped easily so lobbyists and corporations get what they want. After outcries, some 102 companies, including Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and Amazon, have left ALEC.

San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network has been busy since the 1980s raising concerns such as Burger King’s use of beef raised in damage-prone Central American farmlands and forests and for the decimation of trees in Southeast Asia to grow more profitable palm oil plants.

So, shareholder and corporate activism can work. It doesn’t all of the time, but when it rears its head, as it's done in Indiana, watch out.

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