Goods Unite Us Develops App to Shed Light on Money in Politics

Xconomy Wisconsin — 

Less than two weeks after last November’s presidential election, Penzeys Spices CEO Bill Penzey Jr. wrote a public Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) post excoriating Donald Trump and voters who supported him.

“You just voted for an openly racist candidate for the presidency of the United States of America,” Penzey wrote in the post.

Some left-leaning voters and publications praised Penzey’s post. Meanwhile, others vowed to boycott his Wauwatosa, WI-based business, which sells spices and other items online, by catalog, and at dozens of retail stores around the country.

Penzey said in July that his decision to loudly express his political views had turned out to be good for his company’s bottom line. That could change over time, of course. But more than anything, the incident highlighted that when leaders at companies that sell consumer goods speak out on contentious political issues, some customers with similar views will be attracted, while others are likely to take their business elsewhere.

By now, many of the people who both follow political news and have a taste for fine spices know that Penzey is not a fan of Trump. Still, what about corporate executives who have kept their mouths shut, but nonetheless expressed themselves politically by giving to candidates and political action committees (PACs)?

Goods Unite Us, a startup based in Madison, WI, is seeking to inform consumers about the political leanings of corporations they buy products from. Last month, the company introduced a free mobile app for iOS devices that scores companies based on how much money they’ve given to political campaigns and PACs, as well as recipients’ party affiliations, says Abigail Wuest, co-founder and CEO of Goods Unite Us.

“If corporations have protected speech, then we want to know what they’re saying,” Wuest says, referencing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The court ruled that under the free speech clause of the First Amendment, governments cannot restrict certain types of organizations, including for-profit corporations, from spending money in support of (or in opposition to) a candidate for political office.

Wuest says the Goods Unite Us app is designed to increase transparency by providing users with information on political contributions by companies and their executives. The app combs through a database the startup’s six-person team built—and continues to expand—with information from public documents containing disclosures of political donations.

Based on the feedback she’s received so far, people on both sides of the political aisle have been using the app, Wuest says.

However, Goods Unite Us makes no bones about its support for Democrats and progressive causes. Its website, which went live in May, features a store of products sold by companies that have either put little to no money into politics, or that have given predominantly to liberal politicians and PACs, Wuest says. Her startup has pledged to give half of its profits to progressive politicians, PACs, and non-profits, she says.

Goods Unite Us is essentially seeking to do two things. One is to inform voters, through the scoring of companies on its app. The other is to advocate for organizations and candidates on the left, through e-commerce.

Online shoppers can use the startup’s website to buy everything from an Ikea stool to a Panasonic (OTCMKTS: PCRFY) microwave to a Nerf gun sold by Hasbro (NASDAQ: HAS). The Goods Unite Us shop currently lists more than 25,000 unique products.

Actual purchases are made through—you guessed it—Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN). Once a user has finished adding to his virtual shopping cart in the Goods Unite Us store, the details of his order are relayed to Amazon, where he pays and provides shipping information. Goods Unite Us receives up to 8 percent of the sale price of certain items purchased on Amazon via the startup’s website, Wuest says.

Shoppers have made about $15,000 worth of purchases through the Goods Unite Us store in the seven months it’s been active, says Brian Potts, one of the startup’s four co-founders. (Potts, who is married to Wuest, has some experience with e-commerce. He’s the founder of LegalBoard, a computer keyboard that’s sold online and has special keys for symbols and words attorneys frequently use when composing legal documents.)

When an executive becomes enmeshed in a political controversy, hardliners often call on others to boycott the company. There are pages on Facebook urging boycotts of Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A, both of which have had leaders speak out in support of conservative causes. Despite that historical context, when one considers that just in the past two months, brands such as Papa John’s (NASDAQ: PZZA), Keurig, and Patagonia have all made headlines for weighing in on matters related to politics, the potential appeal of a service like Goods Unite Us becomes more apparent.

“I think we’re at a time when a lot of companies you don’t necessarily hear a lot from are starting to feel the need to speak up,” Wuest says. “Companies like Patagonia, who have been good stewards of the environment for a long time, haven’t needed to engage as much until politics were really directly affecting things they care about, like national monuments.”

Potts says Goods Unite Us’ mobile app has been downloaded more than 1,000 times. The startup is hoping to get to 10,000 downloads by next fall, when the 2018 election cycle will be in full swing, he says. (Potts says he and others on the team are currently finalizing a version of the app for Android devices.)

Wuest says her company’s foremost goal is reducing the amount of money in politics, which may seem at odds with her plan to funnel a portion of Goods Unite Us profits back in to politics. At the same time, she says, it’s important to be realistic about where things stand in the short term. If the Citizens United decision is eventually overturned—a big “if”—it would most likely not be until 2021 or later.

“Until we can get money of out politics, we’re going to have to figure out ways to live with it,” Wuest says.

Many Americans say they can’t remember the levels of political polarization and tribalism in the U.S. ever being as high as they are today. Some critics might charge that by creating a marketplace that intentionally excludes products from corporations judged to have right-leaning political views, Goods Unite Us is only likely to exacerbate the problem.

Wuest says the prospect of Goods Unite Us further increasing polarization is a “legitimate concern.” In her view, though, polarization does not stem directly from what people know, but rather how they interpret and act on information.

“My response is, ‘OK, we agree–we do not want our society to become more polarized [either],’” she says. “What triggers polarization, I think, are anger and resentment that our needs are not getting met. Information itself is not inherently bad. Knowing who the companies you’re supporting are donating to should not be the thing that triggers polarization.”