Earlier this year, as LGBT advocacy groups geared up to fight a religious-freedom bill in Georgia, some of the nation’s most powerful executives were rallying behind the scenes. By late March, after the measure passed Georgia’s legislature, Coca-Cola, Delta Airlines, Disney and nearly 500 other companies big and small–as well as major sports organizations like the NFL and NCAA–were warning of consequences should Republican Governor Nathan Deal sign the measure. “There was such a swelling of voices and breadth of industry,” says Atlanta city-council member Alex Wan. “It became impossible to ignore.”
When Deal did veto the bill on March 28, he criticized companies that “resorted to threats” like relocating jobs or canceling conferences, film shoots and sporting events. But he acknowledged that “providing a business-friendly climate” was part of his calculus. And how could it not be? After Indiana passed a similar law last year–which arguably provided legal cover for individuals or businesses with moral objections to deny service to LGBT people–Indianapolis lost an estimated $60 million in economic activity and was pilloried by businesses from Apple to NASCAR.
Spurred by a desire to attract younger, more diverse employees and cater to a new generation of consumers who expect brands to reflect their values, corporations accustomed to lobbying quietly are increasingly taking public stances on social and political issues they wouldn’t have touched in the past. “That traditionally has not been part of business,” says Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff, who heads a cloud computing company with 20,000 employees. But, he adds, it is part of “the new reality.”
In this new reality, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg not only forms an advocacy group to change immigration laws but also announces that his new daughter has been vaccinated. Target publicizes its move toward gender-neutral toys. And Cheerios, after sparking racist backlash for featuring an interracial family in a commercial, doubles down by using the same family in another ad. “You expect businesses to be speaking out on taxes and regulations,” says political strategist Doug Hattaway, a former aide to Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. “But more and more businesses these days are values-driven, not just profit-driven.”
The rationale is not all selfless: those values can help drive profits. In a global survey of some 10,000 adults by Havas Worldwide, 68% of the respondents said they believe that businesses bear as much responsibility as governments for driving positive social change. People want to buy things from companies whose values they share, and many young employees feel the same way about the places they choose to work. “There is this pressure to be relevant and share a point of view that is bigger than ‘We sell this product,'” says Rohit Bhargava, a marketing lecturer at Georgetown.
With any public stance, businesses risk alienating workers, investors and consumers. But at least on the matter of LGBT rights, the likelihood of a backlash is shrinking. Some 60% of Americans support same-sex marriage, double the percentage that did in the ’90s. Employers now vie for top scores on the Human Rights Campaign’s corporate equality rankings, recognizing their value as a recruiting tool. In North Carolina, where Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill invalidating local nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people less than a week before Deal rejected Georgia’s measure, Charlotte-based Bank of America has been vocal in its opposition. And in South Dakota, Citibank and Wells Fargo were among the firms that pressured the Republican governor to veto another bill seen as anti-LGBT in early March.
Even if you agree with these stances, the growing displays of corporate conscience raise questions about the role of businesses in shaping public policy. But barring a groundswell of weary consumers who decide they just want the product without the homily, thank you very much, don’t expect that to change anytime soon. C-suiters may not be trained for the stump, but some of them are starting to sound an awful lot like politicians. “This is about being an American,” Benioff says of his public stand. “This is what America is about today.”
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This appears in the April 11, 2016 issue of TIME.
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