Wayfair Should Have Seen This Coming

In leaked audio, the home-goods retailer’s co-founder seemed surprised that his company was being forced to take a political stance.

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Jenny Kane / Associated Press

Last week, as Americans reacted to news reports that children being held at the border were being denied food, water, and hygiene supplies, employees at a normally under-the-radar, Boston-based e-commerce company were having their own reckoning. According to someone familiar with the situation, during a “cursory review” of transactions on Wednesday, a worker at the home-goods retailer Wayfair noticed that the company had made a $200,000 sale of bedroom furniture to the government contractor BCFS. As it turned out, the furniture was to be used in a new detention center in Texas, where at least 1,600 migrant teenagers and children will reportedly be detained.

Workers began discussing the sale in person and on the company Slack, and by Friday had drafted a petition to management asking that Wayfair “cease all current and future business with BCFS” and “establish a code of ethics” for sales. Some 500 employees signed it that afternoon.

Yesterday, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, Steve Conine, convened a staff meeting that one employee described as both “packed” and “cringeworthy.” During the meeting, of which The Atlantic obtained audio recordings, Conine declared that he was “very much against these detention centers,” but also emphasized the company’s “duty not to be a discriminatory business.” He ultimately rejected workers’ demands. As a result, employees declared their intention to walk off the job this afternoon.

The Atlantic confirmed details of the meeting with a second source. Representatives from Wayfair declined to speak on the record today.

Listen to Conine explain that fulfilling orders is a legal question, not a moral one:

“The business basically exists to be a profit-generating entity, tries to create success for all our employees, tries to create wealth in all our employees so that we can all have an impact on the world,” Conine said during the meeting. “I mean, we’re not a political entity. We’re not trying to take a political side in this.” When asked whether the B2B team, which handles large corporate and government orders, had a code of ethics, Conine responded, “We should think about a code of ethics. And I think that’s something as a company that we should have a conversation around, we should put together. We should put some thought into that.”

Conine’s desire to avoid the fray is understandable, if naive. These are strange times: Socks are political. Outdoor equipment, smutty card games, enterprise software, and the dictionary are political. So is coffee, whether you make it at home or buy it. So is yogurt, in various states of matter. Over the weekend, at the same time Wayfair employees were organizing, the fiber-arts community was embroiled in controversy after the knitting and crocheting forum Ravelry banned content supportive of President Donald Trump, citing his administration’s “open white supremacy”; the site’s leaders told the press they were inspired by hobbyists in a very different corner of the internet—gaming. Hours after Wayfair organizers announced the walkout on Twitter, national political figures including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders had each taken a side, as had Trump’s reelection campaign.

“We do a hundred thousand orders a day right now. There are hundreds of organizations every day that we’re selling to that many of us in this room would not approve of,” Conine said during the meeting. “And the trick is, for us to then say we’re going to build out some sort of system, to say we’re going to discriminate our order flow … We also feel like we have a duty not to be a discriminatory business.”

Listen to Conine explain why fulfilling all orders avoids being “discriminatory”:

His argument is a cousin of the one many of his peers in the technology industry have long clung to: that they aren’t really political entities, but simply value-neutral conveyor belts for whatever service it is that they offer—short-term rentals, rides, community, connection, information, entertainment. That their sheer scale, multiplied by the wide spectrum of beliefs held by their users, makes moderation of any kind so Sisyphean and so subjective a task that the only possible solution is to allow for just about any idea, or any customer.

But as my colleague Alexis Madrigal notes, the notion of the unbiased platform is dying before our eyes, if it ever really existed: “Some things could not be said. Some types of content were favored by advertisers and companies. The algorithms they use to sort and promote content have biases.” In other words, you simply cannot order this much information without making some judgments.

Of course, Wayfair is not Facebook. Facebook makes money by collecting information about users and serving advertisements, which it achieves in part by maximizing user interactions. Wayfair makes money when you buy a couch or a patio umbrella or a throw pillow. Facebook’s service is speech, which is inherently political. Wayfair’s is moderately priced home goods—inherently not. You can understand why the company might be a little caught off guard to suddenly be defending its business decisions using the language of discrimination and the First Amendment.

But it, too, was never really neutral, because any $6 billion, publicly traded company is too powerful not to be. Last year, Wayfair pulled ads from Laura Ingraham’s show after the conservative television host insulted the Parkland survivor David Hogg on Twitter. An employee at the meeting also noted that the company “engages in a lot of political behavior already”: Wayfair doesn’t sell pillows printed with hate speech, for example, and employees “edit the language of customer posts or product information to remove sensitive information—words that might upset someone or be considered sensitive.” None of these examples are exactly the same as refusing service to a government contractor, but the speaker’s ultimate point stands: “Everything that we do … will define our political values as a company.”

Listen to a Wayfair employee argue that the company has never been politically neutral:

This is a lesson that the large tech platforms have learned, in no small part because their employees have begun to hold them accountable. In the past year, workers at Microsoft, Salesforce, Google, and Amazon have all pressured their employers to revisit government contracts they deemed unethical. Now, it seems, less overtly political companies are also learning that every decision has political valence.

“We are a furniture company,” one employee told me. “But we also employ people who care about where they work and have every right to surface things when they have problems.” (The employee requested and was granted anonymity for fear of retaliation, and because they didn’t want to take credit for a group effort. On the meeting audio, Kate Gulliver, Wayfair’s head of talent, is heard strongly emphasizing that no employees who walk out will face repercussions. Gulliver did not respond to a request for comment.)

“We sell furniture, and so, you know this type of particular, very polarizing example?” Conine said at one point during the meeting. “It doesn’t come up that often.” But really, it was only a matter of time. The political moment has created a sort of moral gyre from which no corporation is truly safe, no matter whether it’s selling dish sets or drones, and no matter how deeply its executives want to avoid taking a side.