Levi Strauss & Co. CEO Chip Bergh issued an open letter last week asking people to refrain from bringing firearms into the company’s stores, offices and other facilities. The politely worded request — and it was a request, not a directive — was met with a firestorm of criticism from gun advocates. Some said they will ditch their Levi’s jeans in favor of Wrangler, a threat that was in some instances accompanied by anti-Semitic and pro-Trump messaging.
However, a quick look at Wrangler and its corporate parent demonstrate that the CSR movement leaves the anti-Levi’s movement with little room to grow.
Levi-Strauss has been there before
Levi-Strauss is no stranger to criticism over gun rights and other social issues. The company has been under the gun lobby’s microscope since at least 2000, when it paired up with the band Goo-Goo Dolls in a campaign against gun violence.
In 2011, the formerly influential pundit Glenn Beck declared he would boycott Levi’s over a television ad campaign he said featured “young people reveling in rioting.”
The ad sparked a “Boycott Levis” Facebook page that issued four posts between September and October 2011 before it lapsed into dormancy.
The Bergh letter appears to have breathed new life into the account — and a new post appeared last week:
In 2013, National Public Radio noted that Levi-Strauss appeared on the National Rifle Association’s list of “National Organizations with Anti-Gun Policies.”
The idea that Wrangler is a more politically attractive brand for gun fans is also not new. In 2014, the site Young Conservatives included Levi-Strauss in its list of “20 Massive Companies That Want To Take Your Guns Away,” advising its audience to “buy Wranglers instead.”
In 2013, the gun fan forum ar15.com featured a number of comments stacking Levi’s up against Wranglers. Some participants in the forum eschewed gun politics in favor of politically-neutral benchmarks, as demonstrated by this Texas poster’s pithy observation (edited to be SFW):
“levi’s cut into my n***s and are tight in the thigh in my waist size, so I wear wranglers.”
Another commenter from Nevada took a more straightforward dig at Levi’s over gun rights:
“F**k Levi’s and their anti-gun bulls***t.”
A participant from Michigan took a broader perspective on corporate behavior and came up empty, such as this one:
“Levis went to s**t in the 90’s.
Then they went full chum guzzler with the anti 2A bulls**t, and made in Chinese sweat shops.
Wranglers fit better, but they went to s**t when they switched production to Mexico …”
Switching brands in a CSR world
Accurate or not, that last comment makes an important point about corporate behavior and boycotts.
When you boycott a company, it’s probably a good idea to research the alternatives and make sure you don’t end up giving your dollars to another company with similar policies.
In the case of Wrangler, gun fans do seem to be on pretty safe territory. But through its parent company, VF Corp., Wrangler embraces a diversity and inclusion policy that is at odds with some of the reaction to the Bergh letter.
For example, here is a tweet reported by Raw Story:
((( @LEVIS ))) doesn’t want customers bringing guns into their stores. Another reason to avoid these Jew jeans at all costs.
And, here is the official VF position on diversity:
“At VF, the diversity of our workforce makes a world of difference. Our respect for each other’s unique experiences, perspectives and skill sets is woven throughout the fabric of our culture and guides our actions.
“We encourage our 60,000-plus associates to bring their authentic selves to work every day, and our results show it; when we each feel valued for who we are and what we offer, we give our very best.”
The Wrangler website provides a handy disclosure of its relationship with VF:
“As part of VF Corporation, Wrangler believes that integrity never goes out of style. In fact, we see it as a direct result of the values we embrace – as a company and as people. Values like honesty, consideration and respect. For us, these are more than words. They are embedded in our work and form an integral part of our daily operations.”
Wrangler also provides a diversity boilerplate when advertising job openings online:
“… All qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and/or expression, age, national origin, uniform services, protected veteran status, disability, medical condition, genetic information, citizenship status (when otherwise legally authorized to work), pregnancy, marital status, or ancestry … “
So … now what?
Levi’s boycotters who are looking for an alternative may identify with Wrangler. But the other labels that make up VF Corp may give these boycotters pause, including well-known brands that have crossed over from outdoor culture to urban lifestyle such as the North Face, Timberland and Vans.
Some boycotters may also be surprised to learn about VF’s positions on climate change. The apparel holding company has a solid track record on sustainability, and it joined other major U.S. companies in the Ceres-sponsored BICEP climate change declaration back in 2013.
Among other recent activities, VF also participated in the 2015 Sustainable Brands conference, and this is where things get interesting.
At the conference, VF sent out a strong signal that its brands would pull their sustainability strategies together into a “unified parent-corporation center of goal-setting, excellence and governance.”
Levi-Strauss has already set a high bar for corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the global apparel marketplace, especially in terms of environmental issues. And now it looks like VF is gearing up to cement a far-reaching CSR profile of its own.
If VF’s unified sustainability initiative ripples out to include other features of a strong CSR program, look for VF and its brands to build a more assertive public profile on social issues.
We’re not saying that VF has any intention of engaging consumers on the issue of gun violence any time soon, but don’t be surprised if it does.
For the record, Chip Bergh served in the U.S. Army at the rank of Captain. Before joining Levi-Strauss in 2011, he spent 28 years in leadership roles at another iconic U.S. company with a growing CSR profile, Procter & Gamble.