Virginia Postrel: What You Buy Is Who You Are
The “big sort” has also come to labor markets. Rather than seeking to be a neutral place of blandly inoffensive corporate efficiency, each workplace increasingly celebrates the values of its tribe. That makes work more satisfying and, as in the outdoor business, encourages employees to identify with customers. But it also excludes people. Employees need the right beliefs, the right heroes, the right idea of a good time, even the right attitudes toward dogs. If you don’t fit in, your skills alone won’t qualify you.
The meaning economy poses an unavoidable dilemma. Consumers hold diverse views and attitudes, and they derive real value from expressive consumption. But abandoning lowest-common-denominator branding feeds tribalism and cultural conflict. A diversity of workplaces lets workers find more interesting, congenial employment. Yet that diversity requires more homogeneity within a given organization or even a whole industry — this one is “family friendly,” that one “macho,” this one embodies “Christian values,” that one expects employees to be “fun and quirky.” Tech companies regularly get blasted for their cultural homogeneity, because they’re where the big money is, but the phenomenon is widespread.
Nowhere is it more obvious than in the outdoor industry. Aside from the East Asian suppliers, pretty much everyone looks the same (not just white but northern European white), dresses the same, and, with the possible exception of some hunting types, probably votes the same. A tent designer who supports fracking or thinks some federal lands might be better off with the states had better keep quiet about those deviant views.
In an article in Outdoor Retailer magazine, Luis Benitez, the director of the Colorado Recreation Industry Office, explains that Latinos are camping and hiking in increasingly large numbers, but in different ways from the enthusiasts who built the industry. “The wilderness is seen as a vacation, a place to celebrate, as much as to recreate,” he writes. Latinos take the day hikes that aficionados scorn as “for tourists only” — “tourist” is a bad word, signifying superficiality — and they go camping in large family groups. “Shouldn’t companies start focusing on making gear for them?” Benitez asks.