Close on the heels of Nike's bold statement on civil rights and gun violence, Levi Strauss & Co's CEO and President Chip Bergh has just upped the ante on corporate activism. In a powerful open letter published Tuesday, Bergh announced that his company will partner with the national non-profit organization Everytown for Gun Safety, and form a coalition of like-minded business leaders "who believe that business has a critical role to play and a moral obligation to do something about the gun violence epidemic in this country."
TriplePundit has been taking note of a growing trend in corporate social responsibility, in which top U.S. businesses have taken stands on hot-button civic issues to advocate for social change. By positioning themselves as change agents, companies are ramping up CSR to a new level. They are responding to public concerns and stepping in to fill a vacuum that would -- and should -- normally be filled by elected leaders in a democratic society.
So, is this good for business?
Levi Strauss and Gun Violence
Levi Strauss already has a running start on the issue of gun violence -- and on the consequences of taking a stand. In 2000 the company suffered blowback when it partnered with the band Goo-Goo Dolls on a gun violence campaign, and in 2013 it appeared on a National Rifle Association fact sheet listing "National Organizations with Anti-Gun Policies."
More recently, in November 2016, a customer accidentally shot himself in the foot at a Levi store. The incident prompted Bergh to post an open letter to customers on LinkedIn, asking them to refrain from bringing firearms into the company's stores.
The letter touched off a firestorm of protest from gun advocates, though it was mildly worded and respectful. Bergh's point was simple:
It boils down to this: you shouldn’t have to be concerned about your safety while shopping for clothes or trying on a pair of jeans.
He also made it clear that customers with strong feelings about their guns were entitled to ignore the request:
So, while we understand the heartfelt and strongly-held opinions on both sides of the gun debate, it is with the safety and security of our employees and customers in mind that we respectfully ask people not to bring firearms into our stores, offices or facilities, even in states where it’s permitted by law. Of course, authorized members of law enforcement are an exception.
...we’ve made this decision as a business – a request not a mandate – and we sincerely hope responsible gun owners will respect our position.
The calls to boycott Levi's jeans came fast and furious, but they had no effect. It's true that the company had been floundering badly in the recent past, but that changed after 2011, when Bergh took the helm.
Since then, Levi Strauss has earned glowing reviews. Forbes offered this observation in 2017, less than one year after Bergh posted his letter:
Levi Strauss is on the way to a good recovery. 2017 is expected to be the fifth straight year of growth. The company now aspires to be the world’s best apparel company and one of the best-performing companies in any industry.
Levi Strauss listens
Just this past summer, Bergh published a long form piece in the Harvard Business Review, which provided a detailed explanation of the steps he took to turn the company around.
Nowhere in the article did Bergh mention corporate activism, let alone the company's position on gun violence. However, his point central theme is clear: he listened to his employees, and he listened to his customers.
He closes with this boldly optimistic statement on the company's future:
I believe we can grow beyond our historical peak of $7 billion and someday be a $10 billion brand, as I once assumed the company was. Levi’s lost a generation of consumers in the early 2000s, but today our customers are younger than ever—and we’re gaining momentum as we bring them back.
If you caught that thing about "younger than ever," that's the key to Bergh's new letter -- and to his company's activism.
Just as Nike is credited with responding to a new generation of consumers who are responsive to civil rights issues, Levi Strauss is tapping into the concerns of younger shoppers, an age group that intersects with support for common sense gun regulation.
The company is also targeting another supportive group - women - as described in a long, detailed article in Quartz last May:
The outreach to women, which included the launch of a new women’s collection in 2015, is part of a four-pronged sales strategy that Bergh put in place shortly after he joined to restore the company’s financials to health. Sales to women have risen from about $800 million a year to over $1 billion.
The brand is drawing younger guys, too, as it slims and tapers more of its men’s products, most of which now include stretch...And Levi’s is also selling more products that aren’t bottoms, finding new audiences for its Instagram-friendly logo t-shirts and denim trucker jackets.
"Doing nothing is no longer an option"
That brings us to the company's new, proactive stand on gun violence. Bergh's new letter, published on September 4, is a stark contrast with his mild approach of two years ago:
In the days after I published that letter, I received threats to our stores, our business, and even on my life. It was unsettling. But these personal attacks pale in comparison to the threats that activists and survivors from Parkland, Sandy Hook, and daily incidents of gun violence face every time they speak up on this issue.
In sum, the new letter is not an appeal. It is a direct confrontation with unapologetic gun "rights" supporters.
The new letter also draws the connection between Levi Strauss's role in cultural history, and its responsibility for the future of American culture (breaks added for readability):
As president and CEO of a values-driven company that’s known the world over as a pioneer of the American West and one of the great symbols of American freedom, I take the responsibility of speaking up on the important issues of our day very seriously...
...as business leaders with power in the public and political arenas, we simply cannot stand by silently when it comes to the issues that threaten the very fabric of the communities where we live and work.
While taking a stand can be unpopular with some, doing nothing is no longer an option.
Levi Strauss acts on gun violence
In a company blog post also published on September 4, Levi Strauss underscores its affinity with the up-and-coming generation, stating that its actions are "inspired by the young people who are speaking up on America’s gun violence epidemic."
Titled, "Ending the Gun Violence Epidemic in America," the post outlines three concrete platforms committing the company to advocate for gun safety.
One is establishing the "Safer Tomorrow Fund," which pledges more than $1 million in grants to "fuel the work of nonprofits and youth activists who are working to end gun violence in America."
Initial recipients of the funding include the interfaith organization Live Free, which is also a founding member of the Black & Brown Gun Violence Prevention Consortium; the Courage to Fight Gun Violence organization spearheaded by Gabby Gifford; and Everytown for Gun Safety.
In particular, Levi Strauss will support the youth leadership efforts of Everytown, through the organization's Students Demand Action arm.
Another part of the initiative joins Levi Strauss with Everytown and Michael Bloomberg to establish "Everytown Business Leaders for Gun Safety," with the goal of demonstrating that "business has a critical role to play and a moral obligation to do something about the gun violence epidemic in this country."
The third part involves stepping up support for employee activism. Levi Strauss already matches employee donations to certain organizations, and it will double the match those for organizations that support the goals of the Safer Tomorrow Fund. The company is also advising employees that they are entitled to use their five-hour monthly allotment of paid volunteer time to "get more politically active."
As for whether or not any of this is good for business, apparently it is. The post closes with a warning to gun "rights" advocates:
This is just the beginning. As we continue to learn where we can be most helpful on the issue, we will continue to distribute grants to support those working to shape an America that’s free from gun violence.
Coincidentally or not, Levi Strauss's strong performance in recent years dovetails with an aggressive corporate social responsibility policy that launched in 2011. The new policy built on the company's previous supply chain CSR efforts to establish a new focus on civic leadership with a heavy emphasis on women's issues:
...the new Terms of Engagement will emphasize “how we support the people who make our products,” determined by improvements in vital areas such as poverty, hunger, disease, women’s and children’s health, and women’s rights as well as environmental sustainability.
With its new action on gun violence, Levi Strauss is closing the circle of concern between supply chain, corporate leadership, and consumers.
Boycott or not, here they come.
Be sure to stay updated with stories like these in our Brands Taking Stands newsletter.
Photo: Courtesy of Levi-Strauss & Co. via LinkedIn.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.