Our nation’s business leaders are increasingly coming to the same conclusion: The world’s problems are too profound for them to stand silently by. Chief executives are speaking out on gun control, immigration, climate change, LGBTQ rights, gender parity, and other issues.
These chief executives are listening to their employees and to the American public. In our 2018 survey, a strong majority of the American public – 63% – let us know they believe that CEOs have a responsibility to take a stand on important societal issues, especially if the issues are related to their business.
CEOs who speak out on controversial issues risk a backlash. But experience from the recent wave of CEO activism suggests that the short-term setbacks are outweighed by the positive impact on the company. CEO activism appears to be most effective when there is a strong connection between the statement and the brand, and when the company can demonstrate that it’s putting its views into action via supportive corporate policies.
Here are just a few examples of brands taking a stand. You may or may not agree with them – and it is not for JUST Capital to advocate a position one way or another – but clearly the public prefers speaking up over inaction and silence.
Bold Stand #1: Walmart Stops Selling Handguns
In the aftermath of horrific mass shootings at stores in El Paso, Texas and Southaven, Mississippi in August 2019, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon announced that America’s largest retailer would stop selling handguns and ammunition for handguns and military-style weapons.
McMillon also sent letters to the White House and Congressional leadership urging stronger background checks prior to gun purchases.
With its customer base rooted in rural and middle America, Walmart risks alienating pro-gun customers. But McMillon reasserted his commitment to hunters and spoke as someone who is truly concerned about the safety of his workers, his customers, and his communities: “As a company, we experienced two horrific events in one week, and we will never be the same.”
Bold Stand #2: CVS Health Stops Selling Cigarettes
In 2014, CVS Health became the first national pharmacy chain to stop selling cigarette and tobacco products at its more than 7,600 stores. To this day, the other chains haven’t followed in its footsteps.
Cigarettes are a lucrative business – CVS estimates that it was taking in $2 billion a year from tobacco shoppers – but CEO Larry Merlo said that selling them was at odds with CVS Health’s mission of putting people on a path to better health.
CVS’s move was good for public health: Research suggests that the decision has helped reduce the national smoking rate. But it was also good for CVS. Quitting cigarettes helped CVS position itself as a leader in the high-margin healthcare business.
The company’s annual revenues have climbed steadily since the decision – and they continue to take steps to create the first tobacco-free generation. In June 2019, CVS Health announced a new $50 million campaign to help stop teen vaping.
Bold Stand #3: Nike Stands Behind Colin Kaepernick
About one year ago, Nike made waves with its ad campaign celebrating former NFL star Colin Kaepernick’s right to protest racial injustice by kneeling during the National Anthem. Despite the predictions by Internet commentators that the Swoosh was kaput, the campaign seems to have only helped Nike: The company has boasted higher North American sales growth and a better brand image since the campaign.
Here’s Nike CEO Phil Knight’s bold take on why Nike took its stance: “It doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it. And as long as you have that attitude, you can’t be afraid of offending people. You can’t try and go down the middle of the road. You have to take a stand on something, which is ultimately I think why the Kaepernick ad worked.”
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Bold Stand #4: Chobani Hires Refugees
In the wake of the Trump administration’s actions to restrict immigration, many CEOs spoke up on the value that immigrants and refugees bring to their employers and communities. Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Chobani yogurt, was already walking the talk.
At Chobani’s yogurt plants, nearly 30% of the workforce is made up of immigrants or refugees. Ulukaya has recruited workers from refugee resettlement centers, provided them with transportation and translators, and paid them above minimum wage.
Ulukaya, who grew up raising sheep and goats with his family in Turkey, turned Greek yogurt into a national health-food craze. Within five years of its launch, Chobani was the country’s top-selling yogurt, topping brands sold by massive brands like Dannon and General Mills. Ulukaya credits his success to his hands-on approach to working with employees and communities.
“The playbook that guided businesses and CEOs for the past 40 years is broken,” said Ulukaya in a recent TED Talk. “We need a new playbook that sees people again. That sees above and beyond profits.”
Bold Stand #5: REI #OptsOut of Consumerism
Environmentalism is a natural fit for outdoor gear sellers, as green themes tend to resonate with their customers and workers alike.
This story starts with Patagonia: Back in 2011 on Black Friday (known as the biggest shopping day of the year), Patagonia took out a full-page ad in the New York Times urging readers not to buy one of its best-selling jackets due to the resources required in manufacturing it.
In 2015, competitor REI joined in by closing on Black Friday and paying its employees to go outside instead. More than 700 other organizations have since followed the cue of the company’s #OptOutside campaign. REI still closes every Black Friday, yet the company’s revenues hit a record in 2018.
REI and Patagonia continue to find additional ways to conserve resources. Patagonia offers guides and programs to encourage repair and reuse of their items. Patagonia and REI both sell used gear online, and REI has an expanding rental and trade-in program. REI says its approach appeals to millennials who would rather rent or share than buy.
Bold Stand #6: Procter & Gamble Confronts Its Past
Many companies are keen to herald the progress they’ve made on corporate citizenship, but fewer are willing to discuss the difficult journey required to get there. That’s what makes two recent short films produced by Procter & Gamble (P&G) so impressive.
The first, “The Words Matter,” chronicles the internal campaign by P&G employees that ultimately led to the company becoming one of the first Fortune 500 companies to add sexual orientation to its equal employment opportunity statement of diversity. The second, “Out of the Shadows,” continues with the struggle to get P&G to grant domestic partner benefits to LGBTQ employees.
The films document the homophobia prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s among the P&G rank-and-file, company leadership, and in Cincinnati, where P&G is headquartered. P&G’s willingness to confront and share its past helps explain why it’s now one of the world’s most inclusive companies.
In our Rankings, P&G comes in first among all companies in its equal opportunity workplace policies and nondiscrimination in pay.