In the weeks since the Parkland, Florida, shooting, we have seen more movement on gun control than we’ve had in years. The only problem ― if you think fewer guns is a good thing ― is that it has all come from the private sector.
Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Kroger announced they would no longer sell firearms to kids under 21. REI cut one of its suppliers for failing to produce a “clear plan of action” on guns. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, said it was considering “gun-free investment funds.”
Takes on corporate America’s newfound social conscience have ranged from optimistic (“Let’s hope this creates the tipping point”) to cynical (“corporatist elites trying to get free marketing by virtue signaling”) to galactic (“Serious gun owners would never buy a weapon from a retail clerk in a Dick’s”). But they’re all missing the point.
I worked in corporate accountability for a decade. I know how these companies work. I know what they respond to. And the reality is that this latest wave of progress on gun control says less about these companies’ feelings about AR-15s and more about what public pressure can ― and cannot ― achieve.
Companies are taking a stand because they think it’s good business
The cynics are right about one thing: Companies are taking a position on gun control because it’s easy. From Nike sweatshops to Walmart wages to Exxon Mobil land grabs, most of our campaigns against companies demand that they change fundamental aspects of their business model: Inspect your factories. Unionize your workers. Stop buying diamonds from dictatorships.
The campaigns of the last few weeks, though, have mostly asked companies to do things that only require a few keystrokes and a press release: Revoke discounts from NRA members. End prominent partnerships with the gun lobby. Even for retailers like Dick’s and L.L. Bean, guns accounted for a small portion of their profits, and the amount of money coming from guns sold to teens was even smaller.
Sure, private sector actions, from Nike pledging to ban sweatshops in the 1990s to 68 corporations publicly slamming North Carolina for passing an anti-trans bathroom bill, can be a part of huge policy and cultural shifts. But “woke corporation” is an oxymoron. Companies exist to make money, and the ones changing their minds now have decided they will make more of it by supporting gun control.
The progress of the past few weeks doesn’t mean these companies have become enlightened — it means they sense a shift in consumers and are rushing to capitalize on it. Three-quarters of Americans say they want stricter gun laws, a percent that has increased by 7 points in just the past few weeks. Selling firearms to teenagers, just like discriminating against queer people, operating sweatshops and a million other issues before it, has moved from the edges of the bell curve to the middle.
“I don’t care if it’s the money that’s moving the corporations,” says Rolf Skar, the forest campaign director for Greenpeace USA. “I’m OK if Walmart is doing the right thing to help their bottom line because it means they won’t backtrack. And it reflects an underlying cultural shift.”
Companies are also worried about negative media coverage and angry employees — which would make it harder for them to make money
The second thing to know about the post-Parkland corporate calculation is that boycotts aren’t about sales — they’re about generating media coverage. It’s rare for consumers to change their behavior, and even rarer to do it long or deep enough for a company to notice.
Most of our purchasing decisions take place in private and are more dependent on our impulses than our values. No one’s going to notice if I keep using FedEx after direct-messaging the company that I won’t anymore. I, like everyone else in 2012, “boycotted” Chick-fil-A over its anti-gay donations, even though it doesn’t operate anywhere near me and I haven’t eaten fast food in a decade.
Boycotts that create a storm of controversy and generate headlines where a brand name appears next to words like “embattled” have a real effect. The companies most likely to respond to public pressure are the ones whose reputations are already declining, according to research by Brayden King, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management who specializes in corporate activism.
“One of the reasons Amazon is less likely to respond,” King says, “is that its reputation is robust. Everyone knows who Amazon is.”
Another point of vulnerability is a company’s own employees. Corporations that are embroiled in scandals or repeatedly associated with dead schoolchildren will find it hard to recruit and retain talent. This is one reason so many companies have embraced LGBTQ rights in recent years: Supporting gay people leads to angry emails from customers. Not supporting them leads to angrier letters from employees.
But boycotts and reputational damage can’t change everything
Although reputational damage is the reason private sector pressure campaigns work, it is also the reason they don’t: Not every company cares what the public thinks. As I reported for Highline in 2015, the vast majority of corporations in the world do not have names you’ve heard or products you recognize. Boycotting Apple is relatively easy. Boycotting Foxconn is almost impossible.
A telling example of this is United Airlines, whose sales barely budged in spring 2017 after footage emerged of police officers beating and dragging 69-year-old David Dao off one of the company’s flights. Many of its routes are monopolies ― if you’re flying Charlottesville, Virginia, to LaGuardia Airport you couldn’t boycott United if you tried ― and most of us book flights based on costs and times, not the reputation of the company operating them. Dozens of sectors are similarly insulated: No corporate campaign or amount of bad press is going to give, say, Smith & Wesson a good enough reason to stop making guns.
Plus, media coverage, like the people reading it, is fickle. Auret van Heerden, the former president of the workers’ rights group Fair Labor Association, points out that dozens of reports have documented child labor in the supply chain for cocoa beans, yet no major boycott campaign has gained traction. The narrative ― “Conflict Chocolate” ― is one consumers have simply heard too many times.
What corporate activism can achieve
Corporate activism can and does achieve social change. H&M has hundreds of employees stationed in Bangladesh, making sure local working conditions don’t cross a line where Western consumers would hear about them. It’s not a perfect system, but all those employees, all that effort, are the legacy of two decades of consumer pressure.
“It’s not a replacement for democracy, but it’s a part of it,” Skar says. “The misconception is that corporate actions are temporary or not as permanent as legislation. But in some places, they can be more resilient and more robust.”
After years of Greenpeace campaigns against deforestation in the Amazon, he says, McDonald’s and Cargill and other corporations committed to the Soy Moratorium, an agreement to stop buying soybeans grown on formerly forested land.
“It resulted in large drops in deforestation and it’s been around for 10 years,” he says. “Meanwhile, if you look at Brazil politically we’ve had a coup and the gutting of environmental regulations.”
It’s a useful way to think about consumer pressure: Not as pointless or perfect, visionary or futile, but simply as a form of regulation. Government efforts to stop companies from being terrible ― what the academics call public regulation ― is binding, but it’s also painfully slow, intermittently enforced and, as we keep seeing with gun control, susceptible to capture by lobbyists and the weaknesses of our electoral system.
Private regulation ― boycotts, shareholder advocacy, shouting on Twitter ― is more responsive, but it’s inconsistent, unpredictable and only works when it fits a narrative that resonates with the media and the public.
In other words, the past few weeks show that what’s moving left isn’t the corporations. It’s the country.