“Do-Good” Exploitation

The ethical failings of the socially conscious company THINX point to the inherent pitfalls of "benevolent" capitalism.

Miki Agrawal, the cofounder and CEO of THINX, speaks at Chicago Ideas Week in October 2016. Chicago Ideas / Flickr

THINX, a “period-proof” underwear company for women, was once a darling of the startup scene. Touting itself as a socially conscious and feminist brand, THINX received a slew of awards for its innovative products and female-first mission.

But in the past few weeks, its glowing reputation has been overshadowed by allegations of abusive behavior and sexual harassment by Miki Agrawal, its founder and former CEO. While it’s easy to get caught up in the titillating details of ex-employees’ allegations — workplace nudity, inappropriate touching — the real story is not about how a single individual screwed up. The real story is about the pitfalls of “benevolent” capitalism.

Agrawal, though widely known as a feminist, is also a serious believer in the power of capitalism. She describes herself as a “social entrepreneur” who believes that “conscious businesses will change the world.” In interviews, she touts THINX’s mission of empowering women and the company’s partnerships in developing countries. Much of her thinking seems to come from Conscious Capitalism, a book cowritten by Whole Foods cofounder John Mackey. Last year, Agrawal even joined Conscious Capitalism Inc.’s board of directors.

Given Agrawal’s altruistic beliefs, one might be inclined to chalk her failures up to personal hypocrisy. But THINX’s failures are not just a reflection of Agrawal’s foibles — they’re a reflection of the problems embedded in “benevolent” capitalism.

Inspiration Doesn’t Pay the Bills

One of the central problems with THINX is its low pay and substandard benefits. Former workers recount Agrawal calling them “ungrateful” and “selfish” when they asked for pay raises commensurate with additional responsibilities. Agrawal’s language may seem extreme, but it isn’t surprising given “do-good” capitalism’s obsession with “purpose” and “doing what you love.”

In the universe of benevolent capitalism, workers are assumed to be motivated more by mission and purpose than by their paycheck. But under capitalism, ethical or otherwise, work is what you have to do to survive. Even in the most inspiring workplace, work is still just that: work.

When capitalists like Agrawal ignore this reality and insist on reframing “work” as “purpose,” they are using their mission as a tool to extract labor-on-the-cheap. Workers may even feel guilty about asking for more money, because doing so makes it seem like they are showing up for the paycheck, rather than the cause.

But inspiration doesn’t pay the bills.

When Business Is Too Personal

Benevolent capitalists don’t just want to make work more personal. They want to make the workplace more so as well.

Agrawal loves to talk about how THINX operates like a “family,” open and honest with one another. Last year, she told a reporter at Bustle that she tries to be “super vulnerable” and open with her feelings in the workplace.

Benevolent capitalists may want to believe that everyone is sitting in a circle, openly sharing from their hearts, but the truth is that one person in that circle possesses a lot more power than the others. No matter how magnanimous Agrawal felt, as the CEO she had the power to take away someone’s livelihood — a power that her employees keenly felt.

In interviews with media outlets, many workers have detailed how Agrawal pushed the boundaries of privacy in conversation without recognizing the power that she was subtly exerting. At one staff gathering in 2015, Agrawal launched into a discussion of polyamory and then asked others if they had ever tried it. People responded, but an employee noted, “The power dynamic was such that people wouldn’t feel comfortable saying they didn’t want to be asked that.” While do-good companies like THINX like to proclaim their disavowal of “command-and-control” forms of management, this ends up masking the subtle hierarchies in the workplace.

Given all these problems, why didn’t more THINX’s workers quit and leave? After all, they are presumably white-collar professionals who could likely find employment elsewhere. While that’s true, the ability for “do-good” capitalists to entrap their workers psychologically should not be overlooked.

Take Chelsea Leibow, former head of Public Relations, whose PR emails played a huge role in THINX’s successful branding. She was fired last December. When asked why she didn’t leave on her own, she said, “It was hard to distinguish the success I was having in my role there from my own self-worth, and I was scared about leaving. I doubt myself, like a lot of women.”

Leibow’s self-doubt doesn’t just point to the ways in which women are socialized or the dynamics of an abusive workplace relationship. It also highlights the danger of the do-good capitalist’s central mission: to make work and the workplace feel more personal. Erasing the boundaries between the “professional” and the “personal” encourages workers to attach their personal self-worth to their professional work and, crucially, the opinions of their superiors.

If working is supposed to feel like an extension of one’s personal, authentic self, then it’s no surprise that workers like Leibow would feel overly identified and beholden to their jobs, even when things go sour.

Benevolent Capitalism’s Seedy Underbelly

Is Agrawal simply too idealistic and ignorant of capitalism’s realities? It’s doubtful. In an interview with Fast Company, she gave a revealing answer when asked why THINX doesn’t offer time off when employees have bad cramps from their periods.

If people are in a lot of pain, they can take the day off, Agrawal said. But, she added, “We’re not going to be like, ‘OK you can work from home whenever’ and just be fluid. We’re a company. We’re building a business.”

This kind of rhetoric reveals the seedy underbelly of “benevolent” capitalism. When capitalists play the do-good card to squeeze more performance and loyalty out of their employees, and then conveniently cite business necessities when it benefits them, then doing good becomes little more than their latest exploitative tool.

But Agrawal’s rhetoric also reveals the inherent conflict between the needs of companies and the needs of workers. And that is the structural reality of capitalism, no matter how personally altruistic individual capitalists might be.