Over the past few weeks, a wave of activism from an angry and grieving community in Parkland, Florida has sparked outrage across the country – and not for the first time. What has changed, however, is the response of large retailers and corporations. In the past week or so, the country has seen businesses such as Delta Airlines, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and REI exert pressure on the National Rifle Association and on gun manufacturers by cutting economic ties with related companies or by refusing to sell or setting restrictions on weapons. Why is this reaction occurring, and why is it so unique?
Corporations and big businesses are pressured by consumers and often by governments to contribute positively to society outside of their economic purpose. The integration of this expectation into a company’s bottom line is termed ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR), coined in 1953 and widely publicized and utilized in the 1970s and 80s due in large part to environmental and labor activism. More recently, corporations began responding to concerned communities and shareholders who mobilized online, and particularly on social media.
The push for gun control has shed light on a new aspect of CSR. Not only are corporations responsible for production factors (what they sell, how it was created, what materials it requires, etc.), but they are also accountable for what happens to their merchandise after purchase. As socially responsible organizations, businesses are expected to support and invest in companies which share similarly socially-conscious goals. Today, consumers more than ever have the resources to pressure corporations to uphold these standards and act against those who do not. Recently, FedEx, who has not followed this trend, has seen backlash from two of its corporate investors.
Is this appropriate? As Milton Friedman wrote in the ‘70s, a “corporation’s responsibility is to make as much money for the stakeholders as possible”. While it seems callous, Thomas Coleman from the University of Chicago interprets his article as a re-adherence to Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’: within appropriate legal and social frameworks, if corporations focus singly on profit, ultimately more good will be produced than by a focus on rhetoric about social responsibility. Often critics of CSR will cite this argument against incorporating social and environmental bottom lines into businesses.
However, this argument assumes a government that a) can produce a legal framework whose goals are distinct from those of corporations and b) is willing and able to produce this framework. Given that many national politicians receive significant contributions from the National Rifle Association and adhere to a policy of unregulated gun access, Friedman’s argument doesn’t hold up. If the legal system is pursuing goals informed by economic incentives from pro-gun lobbies, how can they establish an impartial framework that serves general society and its citizens first?
This political entanglement provides few avenues for advocates of gun control. Past violence has not stirred up bipartisan support for gun regulations. After the Parkland shooting, however, an immediate and sustained reaction rapidly gained national momentum. The unprecedented speed and persistence of this wave of anti-gun crusading affected two different sectors. The first is a president and an administration that thrives off public appearances and bold (often controversial and ill-considered) statements. President Trump has suggested both arming teachers and re-negotiating gun laws – perhaps opposing sentiments, but the latter of which complements the tone of post-Parkland activism.
Second, this massive protest has spread like wildfire over social media platforms, inciting supporters (and virulent opposition) nationally and internationally. This kind of social pressure from shareholders and consumers poses great problems for corporations such as Dick’s – particularly when the Parkland killer owned a gun he purchased there. With millions of consumers scrutinizing business practices over such a hot-button issue, silence implies agreement with the status quo. The companies that have pledged to end sales of guns or to impose age limits have seen an outpouring of societal approval – and, importantly, little economic impact (only Delta received retaliatory backlash from the Georgian congress through a vote against cutting jet fuel costs). Generally, it seems as though corporations have begun to seriously respond to consumer turbulence on certain questions.
Because more businesses are jumping on the bandwagon, those who remain silent will be subjected to increasing societal pressure until they take a stand. Furthermore, guns are just one debate. If the integration of anti-weapon CSR into bottom lines serves the greater community, public attention will turn to other massive problems that are not being addressed by governments. A more globalized, interconnected world is evolving which prioritizes human rights above all. Corporations need to keep stepping up in order to successfully adapt.