John Lewis’s decision to ditch gendered labels on children’s clothes shouldn’t be controversial. The stimuli we encounter when growing up greatly shape our worldview. The more we emphasise the difference between genders, the harder inequality will be to overcome.
Saying boys have to dress like this and girls have to dress like that can create confusion and unhappiness not just for those who are struggling with their gender identity but also for girls who want to be sporty or adventurous and boys who like the colour pink or a touch of sparkle. (It’s hard to put this in better words than those of 8 year-old Daisy Edmonds, who went viral last year with her takedown of Tesco’s kids clothes).
But the new policy was always going to be a red rag to the tabloid press and a certain type of online commentator. Over the weekend the retailer’s Facebook page was packed with customers sounding off about this supposed outrage.
‘If you refuse to separate boys' and girls' clothing in your stores, how can you call yourselves John Lewis, which is a boy's name? You deserve to be boycotted for this politically correct stupidity,’ wrote one bright spark. ‘I was just about to renew my Dualit kettle, I'll now buy it somewhere else because you're pandering to Cultural Marxism through your new children's clothing range,’ another. (There’s been plenty of positive responses too: ‘It's about time that children were allowed to be children and not forced by their families or business to conform to their gender.’).
Businesses walk an uneasy tightrope when dealing with ethical issues such as this. Those that rush headlong into politically charged campaigns risk upsetting those who take exception to their stance, and yet also appearing crass and opportunistic to those who share it (see Starbuck’s boss Howard Schultz’s urging of staff to talk to their customers about race relations, as though that was going to solve anything).
But fear of an online backlash shouldn’t stop brands from doing what’s right. This case may have provoked some bile but it’s unlikely to have any lasting impact on the bottom line. If anything it helps John Lewis position itself as a modern, forward-thinking brand, rather than a fusty one that bows down to the angry spite of online trolls.
This move is an example of how being employee-owned allows John Lewis to make tough and bold decisions that bosses with shareholders breathing down their neck might avoid. But now that Britain’s favourite retailer has made the leap, expect others to follow suit soon.
Image: EG Focus/Flickr