DEI backtrack: Tractor Supply’s policy reversal may backfire

Few have put out statements like Tractor Supply’s, which seems to celebrate the betrayal of causes that the company once claimed were important. (AP)
Few have put out statements like Tractor Supply’s, which seems to celebrate the betrayal of causes that the company once claimed were important. (AP)

Summary

  • Tractor Supply’s diversity and inclusivity redaction statement is one of the most extreme examples yet of the DEI backlash that’s sweeping corporate America. The evidence so far suggests the company erred by caving in to anti-DEI activism.

In 2021, Tractor Supply Company’s Chief Executive Hal Lawton published an op-ed in The Tennessean that read like a call to action. “If we are to tackle important issues such as climate that put our children’s future at risk, and if we are to make real progress on a societal commitment to greater opportunities for all, the business community needs to lead by example," he wrote in the company’s hometown paper. “Tractor Supply can and will do more."

Less than three years later, “doing more" has come to mean marking the end of Pride Month by abandoning the LGBTQIA+ community.

The US retailer based in Brentwood, Tennessee, is known for selling farming supplies and animal feed, but succumbed to a social media campaign led by right-wing commentator Robby Starbuck, who “exposed" the company’s commitment to “woke priorities." 

“We don’t want our money going to woke causes," Starbuck said toward the end of a nearly 8-minute video that criticizes the company’s investments in diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI).

Also read: Diversity, equity and inclusion: Action over eloquence please

It took less than a month for Tractor Supply executives to cave. On 27 June, the company put out a statement saying it would stop submitting data to the Human Right Campaign, halt sponsorship of activities like Pride festivals and voting campaigns, eliminate DEI roles and goals and withdraw its carbon emission targets. “We have heard from customers that we have disappointed them," the company wrote. “We have taken this feedback to heart."

This is one of the most extreme examples yet of the DEI backlash that’s currently sweeping corporate America. Plenty of companies have slashed their DEI departments and erased or tweaked corporate language about inclusivity. But most have done so quietly to avoid publicizing their spinelessness and hypocrisy. 

Few have put out statements like Tractor Supply’s, which seems to celebrate the betrayal of causes that the company once claimed were important. Tractor Supply is now sending a very different and clear message about the customers it prioritizes and wants in its stores.

It’s been easy to dismiss the wave of climate and diversity commitments that came out of companies during the last half decade as toothless—often nothing more than thinly veiled attempts to generate good PR. But Tractor Supply’s initiatives were substantive, which Starbuck’s attacks ironically showcased. 

The company put out annual reports on its diverse hiring statistics, offered inclusive benefits, conducted trainings on unconscious bias and sponsored events in the local community that reflected those values. For companies looking to do real ESG and DEI work, Tractor Supply offered a strong model.

That only makes its reversal all the more disappointing.

Submitting to a bully only makes them stronger. Having found success with his Tractor Supply campaign, Starbuck will prey on some other company. He has said as much, claiming in a more recent video that after successfully turning Tractor Supply into the first Fortune 300 company to “go backwards on ESG and DEI," other corporations “are going to have to understand they may be next."

Also read: Is hiring just to meet diversity quotas an unfair approach?

Tractor Supply, meanwhile, should expect a backlash to the backlash. The company’s executives have said that its customers tend to skew more conservative. But to borrow a line from Michael Jordan, Democrats buy farming supplies, too. During the pandemic, Tractor Supply boomed thanks to urban dwellers fleeing cities for dreams of rural living replete with backyard chickens and fire-pits. 

As Fortune reported in 2021, Wappinger Falls, about 110km north of New York City in Dutchess County, is viewed by the company as a textbook Tractor Supply town. Executives might want to note that it also voted Democratic in the last four presidential elections.

Now that the pandemic surge is over, Tractor Supply’s growth has stalled. The company’s same store sales, an important industry metric, were flat last year and a meagre 1.1% in the first quarter. Its top management team probably feared a boycott would make things worse for the company, which brought in $14.6 billion in revenue in 2023. Instead, executives only alienated the kinds of customers they need to attract to reignite growth.

Most damaging, however, is the ease with which Tractor Supply abandoned its purported values and a subset of its customer base along with them. The company provided a haven for LGBTQIA+ people in parts of rural America where it didn’t always feel like they had a safe place to shop. 

Also read: Pick of the week: Steps to a more inclusive workplace

“It is so isolating out here and often very scary to be queer," said a trans educator and content creator. “One of the places we felt the most welcome was our local Tractor Supply." ©bloomberg

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.
more

MINT SPECIALS