Opinion: What's So Wrong With Corporate Gay-Washing?

Gay rights activists are having a busy season. The president's "evolution" on marriage equality has injected gay rights squarely into the presidential election. The escalating court decisions promise a Supreme Court challenge to DOMA before long. And of course, there's the trip to Nike.

Nike just finished hosting a summit on sports, equality, homophobia and bullying at their headquarters in Oregon. There is a growing push for respect and equality in the traditionally macho world of sports. The You Can Play project has urged more athletes to speak out, and many professional teams recorded "It Gets Better" videos. But what's Nike's stake in the cause? Is Nike, not always associated with human rights, trying to be a good corporate citizen? Or is it just a smart business strategy?

It's terrific to see Nike involved in this issue, and it's no longer a business risk to stand up for LGBT rights and respect. All one has to do is see JC Penny's success in standing by Ellen Degeneres and the extreme popularity of their ads featuring same-sex parents, which have been shared and forwarded at a stunning pace on-line. That's right - regular people have been asking friends to watch a JC Penny ad. That's good business.

Is it good politics? When businesses appeal to our values to build customer loyalty, do they really help push forward our causes? Many businesses emphasize their environmental credentials, boast of labor practices and promote their investment in community and non-profit projects. But ultimately, the businesses are still businesses - they aren't making money in order to do good; they are doing good because it will help them make money.

There are some notable exceptions. CREDO Mobile is a progressive phone company, running a mobile network and long distance service in order to bring in a revenue stream to support liberal activism and invest in progressive non-profits. CREDO is one of Planned Parenthood's largest corporate donors, was instrumental in the fight against the Keystone pipeline, and is now targeting 10 anti-women, anti-science Tea Party members of Congress to take out in the coming election. I worked on a project for CREDO in 2006 and saw it first-hand; they were a cause disguised as a business.

Usually, the case is the opposite. In her newly-published book, "Ethical Chic," Brooklyn-based author Fran Hawthorne looks at six companies that have built reputations on their principled practices, and analyzes just how authentic their ethical claims are. Now that Tom's of Maine is owned by Colgate and is using plastic packaging, should its loyal customers consider alternatives?

Starbucks invests in its workers, but strongly opposes unions; and cares about sourcing its coffee beans, but not about reducing its own waste. When even Walmart and McDonald's seek to strengthen their green reputation, does that mean the movement is everywhere, or that the movement is meaningless?

It's valuable to have businesses taking up your cause, whether that means reducing their carbon footprint, promoting decent wages for the workers, or taking up LGBT rights. They have reach, resources and potential for impact that advocates envy.

But corporations aren't the leaders of a cause - it's not in their DNA. Nike, JC Penny and others can be good partners, but only after advocates have effectively started the cultural shift - whether you're working on behalf of woman's rights, immigrant rights, respect for diversity, public health or education. It may feel long a long haul, but when we lead, it's possible for big businesses to follow.