A visit of top federal officials to Duluth Pack on Monday drew protesters and criticism on social media, with many pledging to boycott the company, which makes canvas and leather bags.
But the Duluth-based company's co-owner Tom Sega said the purpose of the officials' visit — to highlight the Pledge to America's Workers — was missed by critics.
"People chose not to do their homework on what this was truly about and chose to make it (about) their own specific agendas and attack us," he said.
Duluth Pack hosted U.S. Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt, presidential adviser Ivanka Trump and U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber for a tour of the business and to highlight a federal program aimed at supporting American workers.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2018 that established the National Council for the American Worker, a group that then created the pledge. It was created before the pandemic, when unemployment rates were low and companies often struggled to find workers.
"This investment is more important than ever, as so many people have been disconnected from the workforce and are experiencing tremendous vulnerability and fear thinking about their path forward," Ivanka Trump said Monday at Duluth Pack.
The event was met with around 50 protesters who gathered outside of the store, with people gathering in support of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Black Lives Matter and missing and murdered Indigenous women as well as to protest the Trump administration's handling of COVID-19.
Sarah Agaton Howes supports the job-driven mission, and said it ultimately gave her pause when deciding to end her company's collaboration with Duluth Pack.
Agaton Howes owns Heart Berry, a company located on the Fond du Lac Reservation in Cloquet that creates custom graphic design based on Ojibwe stories and art. She can't ignore the steps the administration has taken that, she said, hurts the environment and certain communities — which run opposed to her and her company's values.
"I have to align with my values and my community's values. I had to make a hard financial decision. It was really scary," she said. "But I felt ... that now's the time for us and our teeny, tiny, little platform to say this is what we believe in and this is what we care about."
Specifically, she's opposed to the deployment of federal agents into communities and the administration's decisions that she said threatens land and water.
Since making and announcing her decision, Agaton Howes said she's received widespread support and has watched sales climb to Black Friday levels. Her company will donate the remaining Duluth Pack inventory to local nonprofits, Agaton Howes said.
Sega declined to comment on questions regarding the topics that protesters were supporting, which included opposition to the mining in the watershed of the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness.
Since the visit, he said, Duluth Pack has seen an uptick in sales and that a majority of comments he hears have been positive. However, attacks and threats against him, his family and employees are "not acceptable."
Sega listed a number of other businesses, including Apple, General Motors, Amazon and more, that have signed the pledge, "which I think would be shocking to people who want to try to destroy and/or boycott a company."
"In a business, no matter what decisions you make, you make someone happy and you disappoint some people," he said. "This is not the first and it's not the last time that there'll be pushback against our company."