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Tractor Supply slashes its DEI and climate goals after a right-wing pressure campaign

A Tractor Supply Company store pictured in Pittsburgh in 2023. The chain announced a series of changes, including eliminating its DEI roles, in response to conservative backlash.
Gene J. Puskar
/
AP
A Tractor Supply Company store pictured in Pittsburgh in 2023. The chain announced a series of changes, including eliminating its DEI roles, in response to conservative backlash.

Tractor Supply Company, which bills itself as the largest rural lifestyle retailer in the U.S., will eliminate its diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) roles, withdraw its carbon emissions goals and stop sponsoring Pride events in response to criticism from conservative activists.

The Brentwood, Tenn.-based company announced the series of sweeping changes in a statement shared to social media on Thursday, bringing a weeks-long, right-wing pressure campaign to a close.

“We work hard to live up to our Mission and Values every day and represent the values of the communities and customers we serve,” it said. “We have heard from customers that we have disappointed them. We have taken this feedback to heart.”

Tractor Supply sells farm supplies, animal feed, tools, fencing and clothing — “everything except tractors” — at more than 2,200 stores across 49 states, according to its website. It says its customers are primarily farmers, horse owners, ranchers, tradesmen and suburban and rural homeowners.

The Fortune 500 company has been nationally recognized as an inclusive and diverse workplace, including last year in Bloomberg’s Gender Equality Index and Newsweek’s inaugural list of America’s Greatest Workplaces for Diversity.

But it recently became the target of conservative ire for that very reason, as the latest in a growing series of retailers to face backlash over — and ultimately walk back — its DEI initiatives.

Robby Starbuck, a music video director and Republican who ran unsuccessfully to represent Tennessee's 5th Congressional District in 2022, launched the campaign against Tractor Supply on X (formerly Twitter) earlier this month.

He wrote on June 6 that it was “time to expose Tractor Supply,” which he said was one of conservatives’ most beloved brands but was at odds with their values. He pointed to its DEI hiring practices, in-office Pride Month decorations, climate change activism and “funding sex changes,” among other complaints.

“I take no pleasure in bringing this all to light,” Starbuck added. “I’m a Tennessean who loves to support TN companies but as a proud Tennessean I know these woke priorities don’t align with our state or @TractorSupply’s customer base.”

He urged others to “respectfully” flood Tractor Supply’s corporate offices with calls and emails stating their disapproval and, to the extent possible, start buying products from other stores instead.

Their campaign seems to have worked, with the Financial Times reporting it knocked 5% off the Nasdaq-listed company’s share price in the past month. Tractor Supply reversed course before the end of the month.

“Going forward, we will ensure our activities and giving tie directly to our business,” it said.

The changes are placating one group and losing another

Those changes include: no longer submitting data to the Human Rights Campaign (an LGBTQ advocacy group), withdrawing its carbon emissions goals to focus on land and water conservation efforts, eliminating its DEI roles and retiring its current DEI goals “while still ensuring a respectful environment.”

The company also said it would stop sponsoring “nonbusiness activities” like Pride festivals and voting campaigns, and instead continue its focus on “rural America priorities” such as education, animal welfare and veteran causes.

Its statement on X has gotten more than 71,000 likes and 12,000 comments, many of them from conservative users applauding the company’s decision and calling for the movement to continue.

“We will get rid of DEI one company at a time,” wrote Libs of TikTok, the inflammatory right-wing and anti-LGBTQ account.

Starbuck praised the outcome as a “massive victory for sanity,” and said in an eight-minute video that this is the “first Fortune 300 company in our lifetimes to go backwards on ESG, DEI and all these woke causes and donations, in record speed.”

But that’s not good news for everyone. Many X users expressed their disappointment in the company, even vowing not to shop there anymore and calling on others to do the same.

Several, like Tennessee state Sen. Charlane Oliver, a Democrat, were especially disappointed that the company chose to take this stance during the month of both Pride and Juneteenth.

Groups including the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD and the National Black Farmers Association were also quick to denounce Tractor Supply’s move.

“Tractor Supply’s embarrassing capitulation to the petty whims of anti-LGBTQ extremists puts the company out of touch with the vast majority of Americans who support their LGBTQ friends, family, and neighbors,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis told The Advocate. “It sends an appalling message, during Pride month, to see a rural staple go out of their way to bring harm to their LGBTQ customers and employees.”

A spokesperson for Tractor Supply declined to comment beyond their statement.

Why DEI matters

A sign in English and Spanish advertises jobs at a Tractor Supply store in Richland, Miss., in 2023.
Rogelio V. Solis / AP
/
AP
A sign in English and Spanish advertises jobs at a Tractor Supply store in Richland, Miss., in 2023.

Shaun Harper, a professor of business at the University of Southern California, says because Tractor Supply stores are primarily located in rural communities, “the case-making for DEI should’ve been differently framed and better customized for those cultural contexts.”

Harper told NPR over email that he knows firsthand how activities like Pride parades are met with opposition in rural communities, like his South Georgia hometown (which has its own Tractor Supply location).

“It therefore doesn’t surprise me at all that ‘disappointed customers’ misunderstood DEI to be only one narrow set of activities that are misaligned with their religious, ideological, and family values,” he wrote.

Frank Dobbin, a Harvard sociology professor who has studied corporate diversity programs for decades, told NPR that the end of DEI programs hurts business in two ways.

“The most important role of DEI programs is that they promise to democratize access to good jobs in the U.S.,” he explains. “Part of it is just, what kind of a society do we want to be? We want to be a society where anyone can succeed — that’s certainly the principle we were founded on.”

Beyond that, he says, a lot of the practices that promote diversity — such as recruiting from HBCUs, implementing mentorship programs and offering management training — are also “just good management” from a business perspective, especially in a tight labor market.

He says it’s a mistake for companies to roll back low-cost efforts aimed at equalizing opportunities for underrepresented groups like Black, Hispanic and LGBTQ+ workers — and to signal so publicly that members of those groups aren’t welcome in their workplace.

“I don’t think it’s inconsequential when a place like Tractor Supply publicly announces that it’s not going to pursue the programs anymore,” Dobbin adds. “I think it’s not good news that companies are so publicly rejecting their own commitments to try to do better.”

Tractor Supply is part of a broader trend

The Tractor Supply saga is an example of a much broader back and forth over corporate DEI initiatives nationwide.

The 2020 police murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests against racial injustice fueled advocates’ calls for companies to do more to hire, retain and promote workers from minority groups.

That led to a nationwide surge in the hiring of chief diversity officers and other positions dedicated to spearheading DEI efforts — and to backlash from DEI’s conservative critics.

“As often happens, there was a counter movement against it,” Dobbin said. “And the conservative activists have been very successful in raising money and in funding think tanks, where the people who come after companies are often located.”

And their boycotts have had some high-profile successes in recent years, from Target scaling back on its LGBTQ+ merchandise this Pride Month to Bud Light’s parent company putting executives on leave after its partnership with a transgender influencer sparked a firestorm last year.

Dobbin says there are also many companies walking back such initiatives with less fanfare, for example, quietly taking “diversity” out of the title of an internship program.

He thinks anti-DEI efforts will continue to see progress, helped in part by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2023 ruling against affirmative action in higher education. In the long-term, however, Dobbin doesn’t believe “this is the end of progress on promoting diversity in the workforce.”

“We had a moment where the pendulum swung in one direction,” he adds. “It swung back in another direction. Usually we end up somewhere between those two poles.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.