As police sort out details of a deadly shooting on Central Michigan University’s campus, businesses nationally are becoming increasingly vocal about their social responsibility, specifically, what should be done about guns — and what actions they can take to stop gun-related deaths.
Some of the latest moves this week include BlackRock, a New York investment management group, publicly putting tough questions Friday to the gun companies it has invested in, and REI, which doesn’t even sell guns, announcing it won’t sell other products — such as bike helmets and water bottles — made by the gun manufacturer Vista Outdoor.
The moves largely stem from public pressure following the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting deaths two weeks ago, but with each new shooting death, it raises the consciousness — and ire — of consumers who are urging businesses to take a stand on the issue.
The moves also seem to show significant shifts in how companies are operating, experts say.
"Businesses are increasingly attentive to issues of social responsibility and accountability for their actions," said Jerry Davis, associate dean for Business+Impact at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business. "The motivations of companies responding to the Florida shooting are pretty varied, it's not that one thing accounts for what companies are doing."
But, Davis said, the trend of businesses exerting more influence on social issues is likely to continue.
He said this change is happening because social media is giving consumers and workers the ability to organize and put social pressure on companies; young executives, who seem to be more socially conscious, are seeking to use their influence to make social changes, and big institutional investors, which are increasingly owning larger slices of public and private companies, are flexing their power.
Davis said many of the Master's of Business Administration students at U-M now think of business as a way to have an impact on society to improve people's well-being and solve big problems in the nation and world.
"Students come in saying I don't just want a paycheck or get rich, I want to make an impact on the world," he said. "I did not see this 25 years ago."
Unlike the mass shootings in Florida in which a teen is accused of killing 17 people, Friday's incident, authorities said, involved a CMU student who is suspected of shooting and killing his parents in a dorm room when they arrived to pick him up for spring break.
Earlier this week, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Walmart, Kroger, and L.L. Bean announced they would no longer sell guns to anyone younger than 21 years old.
"We have tremendous respect and admiration for the students organizing and making their voices heard regarding gun violence in schools and elsewhere in our country," Dick's CEO Edward Stack wrote in a letter. "We have heard you. The nation has heard you."
Dick's, one of the nation's largest sports retailers, also said it will no longer sell assault-style weapons to customers and went as far as urging elected officials to enact what it called "common sense gun reform."
The company also acknowledged that the Parkland school shooting suspect, Nikolas Cruz, had purchased a gun in November at one of the company's stores, and while the killer did not use that gun in the shooting, the purchase was a factor in the retailer's decision to change policy.
Davis, who on Thursday published his views on why the National Rifle Association boycotts are taking hold so quickly, said while it makes sense for companies to respond to complaints about their suppliers, it's unusual for them to come under fire for who their customers are.
Many companies cut ties with the NRA — including Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Enterprise Holdings, Hertz, Avis, Budget, Symantex, TrueCar, MetLife, SimpliSafe, First National Bank of Omaha — after consumers took to social media expressing outrage with the pro-gun group.
But, Davis said, REI's move also seemed to be a new twist because it shows how companies are being drawn into issues that aren't directly related to their businesses.
"It's almost like guilt by association, two degrees removed," he said.
Pressure to end REI's association with Vista Outdoor had come from REI members and customers. An REI member, for instance, organized an online petition urging the co-op to stop carrying Vista Outdoor brands. By Friday, the petition had more than 17,000 supporters.
BlackRock's actions, he said, also might be a turning point because they show how institutional shareholders — not just consumers and employees — may exert more pressure on businesses in the future.
On Friday, BlackRock asked two gun companies in which it owns a substantial block of shares — Sturm Ruger & Co. and American Outdoor Brands, formerly Smith & Wesson — how will they monitor gun sales and gun use following the Florida shootings.
The company has more than $6 trillion under management, and in January, CEO Larry Fink sent a letter to more than 1,000 corporate chief executives urging them to get involved in socially responsible causes or risk falling out of favor with investors.
"To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society," Fink wrote. "Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate."
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