Tractor Supply Co., heralded for DEI work, eliminates initiatives amid backlash

This Tractor Supply Co. store in Walpole is one of three locations the company has in the Monadnock Region.

This Tractor Supply Co. store in Walpole is one of three locations the company has in the Monadnock Region. JAMES RINKER—Keene Sentinel staff photo

By JAMES RINKER

The Keene Sentinel

Published: 07-05-2024 12:00 PM

Tractor Supply Co., which has three locations in the Monadnock Region, has eliminated its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives amid backlash on social media from some of its customer base.

In a statement released June 27, the Brentwood, Tenn.-based company said it will focus on what it described as the priorities of rural America — such as agricultural education, animal welfare and veteran causes — and would stop “sponsoring nonbusiness activities like pride festivals and voting campaigns.”

However, a number of local and national organizations that support rural diversity, equity and inclusion say the company doesn’t have the deep knowledge of rural communities that it claims, and argue the policy reversal will do more harm than good.

A statement issued by Out in the Open — a nonprofit organization with headquarters in Brattleboro and Maine working to build the power of LGBTQ people in rural areas — said the DEI policy reversal by Tractor Supply Co. contributes to a false narrative that rural communities aren’t places for LGBTQ+ people.

“It’s actually giving us an important reminder that we can’t count on corporations for our liberation,” the organization said.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs at businesses are geared toward ensuring people from all backgrounds have the resources to succeed in the workplace. Workplace diversity training first emerged in the mid-1960s following the introduction of equal employment laws and affirmative action. Hiring for DEI roles and implementing these frameworks surged in 2020 in response to nationwide protests after the murder of George Floyd, The New York Times reported, with companies pledging to do more to create welcoming environments for people from underrepresented backgrounds, such as Black, Indigenous and people of color, LGBTQ+ people and people with disabilities.

Tractor Supply Co. has been nationally recognized for its inclusive and diverse hiring initiatives, and was included in Bloomberg’s Gender Equality Index and Newsweek’s inaugural list of America’s Greatest Workplaces for Diversity in 2023. A DEI council for the company, which was led by President and CEO Hal Lawton, included a team member mentorship program and ramped-up diversity measures for employees and customers across the nation, according to a February 2023 news release.

However, in early June, Tractor Supply Co. became the latest of several corporations in the past year to face criticism for its DEI initiatives and to subsequently abandon them, with the majority of this criticism tied to LGBTQ+ identities. Target chose not to sell its Pride Month collection in all of its stores this year following backlash in 2023 over the merchandise. And Bud Light’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch, saw major sales and profit losses in the U.S. in April 2023 after its partnership with a transgender influencer for March Madness sparked criticism from customers. The company issued a statement and put two marketing executives on leave following a social media boycott against the Bud Light brand.

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“So many people are afraid of losing profits,” said Dottie Morris, the associate vice president for institutional equity and diversity at Keene State College. “I think for some of these businesses they will go with the flow of what’s popular and then realize it’s not as profitable. That’s the bottom line, dollars and cents.”

Morris noted that some people are a lot more vocal and aggressive, especially online, than those who are embracing the DEI work of corporations.

Robby Starbuck, a filmmaker based in Tennessee who ran for that state’s 5th Congressional District in 2022, posted a video and written statement on X (formerly Twitter) on June 6 criticizing how Tractor Supply Co. provided training inclusive of LGBTQ+ identities as part of its DEI initiatives.

“Hal Lawton needs to understand that we don’t want our hard earned money spent on these woke priorities,” he said, and he urged people to boycott the company and shop at other stores.

Tractor Supply Co.’s June 27 statement said the company would be cutting its DEI roles and eliminating its “current DEI goals while still ensuring a respectful environment.”

A spokesperson for the company did not answer a Sentinel inquiry about what the company would be doing to ensure “a respectful environment” at Tractor Supply Co. stores across the country and said the company had no additional comments to share beyond the statement.

“We have heard from customers that we have disappointed them,” Tractor Supply Co. said in that statement. “We have taken this feedback to heart.”

A Sentinel reporter attempted to ask customers outside of the Walpole store Tuesday for their input about Tractor Supply Co.’s announcement, but they all declined to comment.

The company also has local stores in Hinsdale and Rindge.

In its statement, Tractor Supply Co. said it would focus on land and conservation efforts, but retire its goals to achieve net zero carbon emissions across all operations by 2040 and reduce its water usage by 2025.

The company also said it would “no longer submit data to the Human Rights Campaign,” one of the biggest LGBTQ+ nonprofit advocacy groups in the United States. This data include workforce protections, inclusive benefits and community engagement practices.

Tractor Supply Co. was one of more than 1,300 businesses to participate in the HRC’s Corporate Equality Index in 2023 and earned a near-perfect score for its LGBTQ+ inclusive benefits and workplace protections.

“Tractor Supply Co is turning its back on their own neighbors with this shortsighted decision,” Eric Bloem, vice president of programs and corporate advocacy at the Human Rights Campaign, said in an emailed statement sent Monday. “LGBTQ+ people live in every zip code in this country, including rural communities. We are shoppers, farmers, veterans and agriculture students.”

Bloem noted how companies from every industry have worked closely with HRC over the years to create inclusive policies and practices, including Tractor Supply Co.

HB Lozito, executive director of Out in the Open, noted that, in its criticism of Tractor Supply Co.’s recent announcement, Out in the Open is not trying to “demonize the people who work in local Tractor Supply stores, some of whom are likely LGBTQIA people.”

“We can care about each other and we can support all of our neighbors to live safe, happy, and fulfilled lives no matter the size of the community where we live and regardless of any identity or experience we may hold,” they said in an emailed statement.

“As we often say, the only way through any of this is through it together.”