How Nike, Gap, and Victoria’s Secret Profits Indirectly Support Anti-Abortion Politicians
The professed values of these companies don’t always align with how they conduct business.
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The fall of Roe Vs. Wade in the U.S. marks the dawn of a grim new era, in which women in around half of states will no longer be able to access necessary reproductive healthcare including abortion. Experts agree that as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs Vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, women will die unnecessarily. We will likely be stuck with this abysmal reality for decades.
I expected the fashion industry – especially after grandstanding for other causes, like ending racism and the war in Ukraine – to respond, at least with statements stylishly designed for social media squares. This allows companies to show their outraged customers that they, too, care, which may be good for business. But making sure women are healthy and economically secure is even better for business. Women “drive between 70% and 80% of all consumer purchasing” globally, according to Bloomberg. Women also hold more jobs in the fashion retail industry than men. And women spend three times more on clothing than men. Meanwhile, women forced to go through with an unwanted pregnancy are four times as likely to live in poverty, the Turnaway Study found.
However, as with past flurries of corporate statements on life-altering issues, the professed values of the companies making them, like Nike and Gap, don’t always align with how they conduct business. In fact, the profits of many of these large corporations wind up in the pockets of the kinds of anti-abortion politicians who have been working for many years to rob women of reproductive freedom and therefore the right to be equal members of society.
“I think what we’re seeing from these companies is tremendous hypocrisy, and they owe their workers a lot more than just platitudes,” said Jill Filipovic, a journalist who has long covered reproductive freedom and long been one of my favorite voices on the topic. You should subscribe to her excellent Substack, where she has been covering the Dobbs decision in depth. In a post this week about corporate response, she wrote:
If big companies want to demonstrate that they value all of their employees, refuse to put them at unnecessary legal risk, and do not believe that their female workers and others who can get pregnant deserve to have their bodies and intimate lives regulated by the government, they need to do more than offer a travel benefit. They need to cease all donations to anti-abortion politicians.
Let’s make an example of a few such big companies. First, there’s Nike, the recent subject of a bizarre and lengthy puff piece in the New York Times, which issued this statement timed to the Dobbs ruling:
Nike offers comprehensive family planning benefits. No matter where our teammates are on their family planning journey – from contraception and abortion coverage, to pregnancy and family-building support through fertility, surrogacy and adoption benefits – we are here to support their decisions.
We cover travel and lodging expenses in situations where services are not available close to home and regularly make adjustments to our benefits to ensure employees have access to the quality healthcare they need.
However, one can easily search the publicly available information on the FEC website and see that the Nike Inc. Federal PAC is funded by company employees like CEO John Donahoe, whose 2021 compensation totaled $53.5 million, landing him on more than one “most overcompensated CEOs” internet lists. This Nike PAC gives money to anti-abortion candidates like South Dakota Republican Senator John Thune. Thune is up for reelection and called the Dobbs decision “long overdue” in a statement. (The Nike PAC also gives money to pro-choice candidates.)
We can also make an example of Gap Inc., which issued this statement after the Dobbs ruling:
At Gap Inc., we know that a strong workforce starts with the health and well-being of all our employees—76% of whom are women. At a recent employee event, we shared with our teams the wide range of mental health and family planning benefits we offer—because we know it is important to support our employees, regardless of whether, how or when they decide to start a family.
Some of those benefits include coverage of adoptions, surrogacy, fertility treatments, paid parental leave, contraception, and abortion.
Any employee covered under Gap Inc.’s UnitedHealthcare plans can access our benefits in any state, either that they reside in or travel to, now or in the future. We are committed to supporting all employees through these important life decisions—no matter where they live or which path they take.
Dig further on Gap Inc.’s corporate site, and you’ll find the company’s “Political Engagement Policy.” It reveals that the company has a PAC “funded solely from voluntary contributions made by eligible Gap Inc. employees, directors, stockholders, and their families.” It was “formed to impact public policy relevant to our business interests, guided by our company purpose to be inclusive, by design.” The PAC’s donations are obviously tied to the company and its profits, despite being presented as something separate. “Clearly, they’re doing that in order to create the appearance of distance, but it’s fundamentally and functionally the same thing,” said Filipovic.
The Gap PAC’s disbursements, also easy to browse on the FEC website, go to campaigns for both Democrats and Republicans. On December 20, 2021, the Gap PAC gave $2,500 to “pro-life” Georgia congressman Drew Ferguson’s primary race. On March 31, 2022, it gave another $5,000 to his general election race. Following the Dobbs decision, Ferguson issued a statement saying, “The Supreme Court is correct in this ruling.” Like many of his ilk, he opposes Planned Parenthood receiving federal funds.
There’s also Kansas Republican Congressman Ron Estes, who said in a statement after the Dobbs ruling: “[T]he disastrous and misguided Roe v. Wade ruling from 1973 has finally been overturned.” On March 16, the Gap PAC gave $2,500 to his primary campaign. Estes previously introduced a bill that would ban doctors from performing abortion on a fetus found to have down syndrome, subjecting violating providers to a fine or imprisonment.
Another Gap PAC beneficiary is Indiana Congressional candidate Jackie Walorski, who said in a statement about the Dobbs ruling, “Our prayers have been answered.” She boasts on her website about the litany of “pro-life” legislation she has co-sponsored over the years, along with her support of the Hyde amendment, which bars federal funds from being used for abortion.
Gap Inc. also pays money to trade organizations like the National Retail Federation, which has its own PAC that gives money to anti-abortion politicians. The NRF states that its PAC is “nonpartisan” and “allows eligible employees from member companies to combine contributions and participate in the political process to create better business practices and policies.” Its treasurer is David French, whom the NRF describes as its chief lobbyist. French contributes regularly to the PAC himself along with NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay.
While Gap’s PAC has not contributed in recent years directly to the NRF PAC, WalMart’s PAC has, to name just one major apparel retailer. The NRF PAC has given thousands in recent years to Ferguson, Walorski, and Estes. On May 10, they kicked $1,000 to the Congressional campaign of North Carolina Republican Chuck Edwards, whose site says he “believes life begins at conception!”
And, the NRF PAC has given money to long-serving anti-abortion Republican senators who have worked for many years to create the conditions that allowed for the reversal of Roe, despite most Americans opposing this outcome. They include John Boozman from Arkansas, who is up for reelection and has been endorsed by the Tea Party. He bragged in a statement about the Dobbs decision that he was “pleased to have helped confirm justices to our nation’s highest court” who overturned Roe. Boozman has also voted against the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would allow women access to abortions without unnecessary burdens imposed on them or providers, such as needless medical tests. The NRF’s PAC has also given money to anti-abortion Republican senators Marco Rubio ($1,000 in 2021) and Chuck Grassley ($1,000 in March and $1,000 last year).
Victoria’s Secret is just one other NRF supporter. The company recently underwent a long overdue rebrand after damaging press surrounding — and public outcry over — its problematic marketing images that promoted a thin, white beauty ideal. It would make sense for the company, newly vocal in its professed inclusive values, to now speak out in support of women at a moment when our freedom is under horrific assault. And it did, issuing a statement on its corporate site under the heading “Reproductive Rights.”
As a company committed to being an advocate for women and championing their journeys, we believe a woman’s right to self-determination is fundamental. When women make decisions about their lives for themselves, they are able to participate fully and equally in society, families and communities grow stronger, cultures grow richer and the trajectory of the world bends toward equality. For those reasons VS&Co supports a woman’s right to choose, including equal access to safe reproductive and abortion care provided by medical professionals. We support choice, because we believe in women and trust them to make decisions that are right for them.
We are proud to provide a suite of reproductive benefits and will continue to add to and improve these benefits in support of our associates.
This statement conveniently omits that Victoria’s Secret supports the NRF and other trade organizations with PACs that give to anti-abortion politicians. But in another section on the corporate site, under the vague heading “Affiliations,” VS admits to supporting the NRF, stating: “Every day, they passionately stand up for the people, policies and ideas that help retail thrive.” (Oh?) Here, VS also admits to supporting the Retail Industry Leaders Association (Gap supports it, too), which has a PAC that has given money to anti-abortion Republicans like Walorski, along with Minnesota Congressman Tom Emmer. Emmer is up for reelection and issued a statement supporting the Dobbs ruling. Additionally, RILA’s PAC — also directly funded by Walmart’s PAC — has given money to anti-abortion Republican Senator Thom Tillis. Filipovic noted that companies that are members of organizations like the NRF and RILA but don’t donate to its PACs are nonetheless “attaching their names, brands, and reputations to an organization that donates to anti-abortion causes, even if the companies in question are not donating themselves.”
Victoria’s Secret has a section on its site devoted to “Values,” where it boasts about fostering “a culture of transparency.” However, like many major corporations, it is anything but transparent when it comes to explaining that benefitting from its membership dues are organizations involved in directing funds to anti-abortion politicians. It actually goes out of its way to distance itself from trade organizations like the NRF. A company document laying out Victoria’s Secret’s policy on political contributions states:
Some of these trade associations engage in political activities, including the making of political contributions and lobbying. Although Victoria’s Secret & Co. participates in these organizations, we do not exercise control over them and may not agree with all the positions of each organization.
I asked Filipovic for her take on this sort of statement, and she said, “If you’re not supporting what they do, then stop giving them your money.” She added, “These trade organizations obviously lobby for a whole series of pro-business policies, and they see it as beneficial to their bottom line. But the truth is they’re making the choice to put potential profits over the health and safety of their employees and consumers and every person who can get pregnant in the United States.”
Another company that made headlines this week for offering travel money to employees seeking abortions is Dick’s Sporting Goods – which paid $60,952 to the NRF in 2020. Nike, Gap, Victoria’s Secret, and Dick’s are just four companies. What is shocking is perhaps not just those few examples, but that this kind of activity is so rampant that there are countless additional examples. And unfortunately, these activities are abetted by fashion and women’s media hesitant to publish negative stories about brands like this because in addition to writing checks to the NRF, they also write checks for advertising.
Not all fashion companies that issued statements on Dobbs display such blatant hypocrisy. A lot of companies – like Ralph Lauren and Estée Lauder, which both pledged to cover travel costs for employees seeking abortion – don’t have PACs or spend company money on politics. But the reality in the United States is that many, many businesses do. For that, we can blame the conservative Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United, which enabled corporations and other outside groups to spend an unlimited amount of money on elections, giving them even more of a voice in politics. “As much as it is infuriating that big businesses shape so much of our politics, they do,” said Filipovic. “The only way to wield that responsibility is to not support politicians that are behind these walk-backs of civil rights.”
So, what can consumers do? We can get outraged and let everyone know. We can call companies like Nike, Gap, and Victoria’s Secret that have their own “nonpartisan” PACs and/or support organizations like the NRF and RILA and demand they stop funding them if they want our business. Those of us who are able to pull our business and shop elsewhere – and not everyone is – can certainly do so. We can also demand that these companies provide comprehensive, easy-to-find information on all the trade organizations they support and which politicians those trade organizations’ PACs give money to.
This is an industry where it has become normalized for clothing companies to publish extensive scientific-sounding copy on things like how certain fabrics are made, in order to prove that their wares are “sustainable.” Surely, brands can devote at least the same amount of energy to disclosing exactly where their profits are flowing and how that affects the lives of women whose money keeps them in business.
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