Tractor Supply Co. retreats from DEI roles and goals

Gene J. Puskar/AP

A Tractor Supply Company sign is pictured in Pittsburgh, February 2, 2023.

New York

Tractor Supply Company has scrapped its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives as part of what the retailer describes as an effort to distance itself from “non-business activities” following conservative backlash from some of its customer base.

In a news release Thursday, Tractor Supply, which bills itself as the nation’s “largest rural lifestyle retailer,” said it will stop sponsoring activities such as “pride festivals and voting campaigns” and that it will eliminate DEI roles and “the current DEI will retire’. objectives while ensuring a respectful environment.”

“We have heard from customers that we have disappointed them,” the company said. “We have taken this feedback to heart.”

The reversal comes less than a month after right-wing commentator Robby Starbuck attacked the company’s LGBTQ-inclusive stance and DEI hiring initiatives in a series of posts on X. Starbuck, who ran in an unsuccessful bid for Tennessee’s 5th congressional district in 2022, called on customers to boycott Tractor Supply and contact are business leadership.

After the policy pivot was announced, Starbuck took aim at X again, calling the move a “huge victory” and “the biggest boycott victory of our lifetimes.”

Shaun Harper, a professor of business, public policy and education at the University of Southern California, told CNN that one reason for the conservative backlash was Tractor Supply’s failure to align its DEI policies with the culture in which it operates.

The Brentwood, The Tennessee-based company, which bills itself as the largest supporter of the National FFA Organization, a nonprofit that supports agricultural education, has deep ties to rural communities in 49 states. Harper says Tractor Supply’s inclusion policies should have been tailored to that specific cultural context.

“You can’t say you’re going to try to do at Tractor Supply what they’re doing at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California — that’s absolutely not going to work,” he said. “It’s what I call ‘situated DEI.’ I would say start with a focus on expanding opportunities for low-income people, expanding access to agriculture for women in rural areas, and helping people understand how having more women and more people of color in agriculture benefits everybody. And help them understand that diversifying agriculture to include women and people of color doesn’t necessarily mean diminishing opportunities for white male farmers.”

Still, activists and experts say Tractor Supply’s backlash is a blow to civil rights and LGBTQ+ protections for workers and customers.

“Homophobia, transphobia, sexism, gender discrimination, sexual harassment in the workplace, ableism, size-ism and racism are not going to eliminate themselves,” Harper said. “In the absence of good policies and programs within companies, the danger is that these long-standing problems will be exacerbated. There will be more conflict between and among employees and customers representing different groups.”

Tractor Supply also said it would “no longer provide data to the Human Rights Campaign,” one of the largest LGBTQ+ nonprofit advocacy groups in the United States.

It was one of more than 1,300 companies participating in the HRC’s Corporate Equality Index, a benchmark survey and report measuring policies and practices related to LGBTQ+ equality in the workplace. In 2023, the company achieved a near-perfect score of 95/100 for establishing workplace protections and benefits that took into account LGBTQ+ employees, offering inclusivity training to employees, and reaching out to the LGBTQ+ community.

“Tractor Supply Co. is turning its back on its neighbors with this shortsighted decision,” Eric Bloem, vice president of Programs and Corporate Advocacy at the Human Rights Campaign, told CNN in a statement Saturday. “LGBTQ+ people live in every zip code in this country, including rural communities. We are shoppers, farmers, veterans and agricultural students. Companies from every industry work closely with us to ensure their employees and customers are respected, valued, and can do the job for their staff and shareholders. That’s why Tractor Supply — and most of the nation’s largest employers — have worked with us for years to create inclusive policies and practices. Giving in to far-right extremists will only hurt the very people these companies rely on.”

The policy reversal is part of a broader trend of corporate doubt about LGBTQ+ inclusion. In light of the anti-LGBTQ backlash that threatens corporate profitability, several well-known brands have dropped their support for inclusivity.

Last year, Bud Light’s partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney led to an anti-trans backlash and a months-long boycott of the beer brand, during which the company failed to take a firm stand in support of Mulvaney and the transgender community. The boycott and subsequent tepid response cost parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev a whopping $1.4 billion in revenue, as well as its credibility with a major LGBTQ+ nonprofit.

Last month, retailer Target announced it would limit the number of stores that could sell its adult Pride collection, after a boycott by right-wing activists last summer led to a sharp drop in sales.

While bowing to consumer reaction may seem like the safest strategy for recovering lost revenue from a boycott, it can also be shortsighted. Harper argues that few companies consider the potential costs of a lawsuit of customers and employees.

“There’s so much money wasted on settlements or damages for discrimination and harassment,” he said. “I want companies to think not just about revenue, but also about the cost of litigation and the cost of reputation. Those are the things that business leaders don’t think about when they’re dismantling DEI.”

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