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The Rise of Corporate Social Responsibility

While Congress dithers, companies are taking action on issues like gun control. But is it all just an exercise in branding?


In late October, as the post-Weinstein reckoning swept across practically every sector of the American economy, Axios’s Mike Allen wrote, “Forget politics. The culture wars are raging in corporate America, and many CEOs and businesses are grossly unprepared.” Allen noted that, due to pressure from customers and social media, CEOs were being pulled into “high-stakes collisions” on issues like “immigration, climate change, diversity, and inclusiveness.” But just four months later, Allen marveled at the degree to which “corporations, under intense social pressure, are filling a void left by governmental gridlock or avoidance.” Companies may still be run by old, out-of-touch white guys, Allen argued, but corporate social responsibility is in fashion right now.

In this telling, corporate America has taken action on gay rights, gun control, climate change, and the minimum wage—all while Congress dithers. The response to the Parkland shooting has been emblematic. A number of corporations have cut ties with the NRA, and Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart both raised the minimum age for purchasing guns to 21. Furthermore, Dick’s announced that it would no longer sell assault rifles. So Allen’s not wrong: Corporations are stepping into a space that’s been left open by government inaction. People want to see movement on issues like gun control, and pressuring corporations is one way to accomplish that.

But it would be a mistake to see these moves as genuine attempts to address American society’s many ills, let alone as adequate substitutes for government action. It is more accurate to see them as high-wire acts in ad-hoc branding—attempts to stay above the popular disgust that has swallowed up the government and just about every other major institution in America.

Allen acknowledges this dynamic to an extent. “In most cases, this phenomenon is inspired not by the pure benevolence of corporations,” he wrote. “Instead, it’s intense pressure from social media mobs and idealistic millennials in the companies’ workforces, who expect their employers to take stands.” Corporations have figured out that taking the right kinds of stands—which is to say, safe ones—can pay dividends. In the Trump era, studies have shown that two-thirds of consumers want the brands that they support to take positions on socio-political issues. These numbers are highest among younger people, a demographic companies presumably want to recruit from and sell to.

Sunday’s Academy Awards were a case in point. Many of the ads accompanying the broadcast were explicitly focused on women’s empowerment. Twitter and Nike both ran lengthy ads addressing gender equality. (Jim Beam even donated bottles of whiskey to women’s charities for every woman who was nominated for an award.) In Twitter’s ad, queer poet Denice Frohman recites a poem—“I heard a woman becomes herself the first time she speaks without permission”—while the faces of women, including Issa Rae and Ava Duvernay, flash by. The ad was immediately greeted with criticism because Twitter has struggled mightily with online harassment and seemingly done little to curb it. It turns out that messages of solidarity can backfire when consumers believe them to be empty gestures.

Which leads back to the changes made by Walmart and Dick’s. In addition to raising the age to purchase guns, Walmart announced it would stop selling toys and air rifles that resembled assault weapons. Dick’s went further, announcing it would stop selling assault weapons altogether. CEO Edward Stack revealed that Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz had purchased a weapon from the retailer last fall, and he seemed disturbed by the prospect of his company selling a gun that ends up being used in a mass shooting.

But it remains unclear what impact the Dick’s change will have. For example, we don’t know how Dick’s will define assault weapons. Nor is it known what Dick’s is sacrificing, since it hasn’t revealed how many assault weapons it sells a year. What is clear, however, is that in this environment, the risk of selling assault rifles is real. Whatever Walmart and Dick’s think of gun control, neither wants to be in the position of having sold a gun used in a mass shooting.

Dick’s and Walmart, in other words, aren’t filling a void on gun control. It’s still just as easy for a potential mass shooter to buy an assault rifle as it was before the Parkland shooting. An 18-year-old can go to a different gun shop and buy a semi-automatic weapon. Stack, to his credit, has also called for “common sense gun control”: blocking the sale of guns to those under 21, reinstating the ban on assault weapons, and expanding mental health background checks. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims,” the company said in a statement. “But thoughts and prayers are not enough.” By calling for gun control legislation from Congress, Dick’s is acknowledging that corporate social responsibility is a poor stand-in for governmental legislation.

Furthermore, companies that have deeper financial relationships with gun groups—like FedEx, which thus far hasn’t abandoned the NRA despite boycotts and intense pressure—have struggled to find the right footing. Ditto those companies concerned about setting precedent by dumping a group that hasn’t violated its terms of service, like Apple and Amazon, which still host NRA TV. And all these companies may simply be trying to ride out the current controversy. It’s worth noting that Dick’s removed assault rifles from its shelves after the Sandy Hook massacre, only to quietly resume selling them months later.

What is actually happening is that wise corporations are deftly using the moment to build their brands and appeal to consumers—winning points with tepid moves designed to alienate as few people as possible. They are even exploiting the same social media forces that they fear will be turned against them. Small gestures are being overblown in part because there’s so little progress on issues like gun control: Dick’s and Walmart raising the minimum age to buy a gun may not do very much, but it’s still something, which is more than can be said for Congress, or a number of other companies with ties to the NRA.

But corporate social responsibility isn’t really social responsibility—it’s branding. If that branding’s working, it’s not because corporations are filling a void left by politicians, but because our standards for meaningful action are so low. A month ago, Delta and United had totally tangential relationships with the NRA for the same reason that they cast the gun advocacy group aside two weeks ago: It helped the bottom line.