August 12, 2019

Walmart, Victoria’s Secret, SoulCycle Can’t Avoid Political Outrage
(Bloomberg) -- Business leaders hoping late summer would offer a break from mounting political and social pressures have had a rude awakening.Two lethal shootings and a third attempt at Walmart stores put the retailer back into the spotlight on gun rights. Exercise companies SoulCycle and Equinox worked to fend off a boycott triggered by investor Steve Ross’ support for President Donald Trump. Les Wexner, CEO of Victoria’s Secret parent company L Brands Inc., tried again to distance the company from alleged sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, as well as models’ complaints of harassment.Since 2017, when business leaders were pressured to step down from President Donald Trump’s advisory council, companies have found it increasingly hard to separate business from politics. Calls for action have become a quagmire for executives, and there’s no clear consensus on how to respond.“The more people look to businesses to make a political statement, the more dangerous it is for businesses not to make a political statement,” said Kabrina Chang, who teaches business ethics at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. “The problem with that is that they are going to get killed for the political statement. For better or worse, society is looking to business more than ever.”Two people died in a shooting at a Walmart in Mississippi on July 30. More than 40 were shot in an unrelated attack Aug. 3 at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. An additional shooting may have been thwarted Thursday when a gunman wearing body armor was stopped by an armed private citizen outside a Walmart in Springfield, Missouri.As one of the country’s biggest firearms retailers, Walmart is a frequent target of anti-violence activists. In 2015, the company stopped selling military-style weapons, citing sluggish demand. Last year the company said it would increase the age to purchase firearms and ammunition to 21 years old.Walmart ResponseEarlier this week, the New York Times published an open letter calling on Walmart Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon and other business leaders to use their companies’ market power to influence the way guns are bought, sold and tracked in the U.S.In a letter to employees posted on the company’s website on Aug. 7, McMillon said Walmart would consider the “broader national discussion around gun violence” and “act in a way that reflects the best values and ideals of our company.” Two days later, the retailer said it would remove violent imagery from its stores.Walmart did not respond to a request seeking additional comment.Employers are just as likely to face pressure from their own employees. A Walmart employee was locked out of corporate email and chat services last week after he tried to organize a protest over gun sales. Twitter, Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube and Google have all bowed to pressure from their employees or customers to block or limit content or contracts that are considered offensive. Wayfair Inc. employees walked out to protest sales to contractors furnishing border camps for asylum seekers.In the current climate, companies can’t play access-driven, politics as usual, said Rashad Robinson, executive director of civil rights organization Color of Change. “Companies are talking a position when they decide to sell guns in the first place, or when they decide that their CEO is going to make certain political donations,” he said. “It’s not that they’ve got to make a choice about whether to not do something. They also have to examine what the status quo was in the first place.”Wait It Out?It’s not always clear what if anything a company should do. Sometimes, the best option is to try to wait it out, Boston University’s Chang said. Most controversies are short-lived, and there’s no way to please everyone. Companies face the risk of angering groups like Robinson’s on the left or a boycott call from organizations like 2nd Vote on the other side. Over the weekend, 2nd Vote re-iterated calls for companies to get stay out of politics and focus on selling products.Stanford research shows that whatever they do, companies should proceed with caution, because people are more likely to stop buying over positions they disagree with than company positions they support.Hundreds of companies have signed pledges to support LGBT rights, but few have spoken out against newly restrictive abortion laws. Nike Inc. built a campaign around its support of Colin Kaepernick and, recently, pulled shoes emblazoned with a historical version of the American flag that’s often also used by racist groups. Hobby Lobby and Chick-Fil-A have stuck by controversial positions on gay marriage. Target Corp. augmented its policy to allow customers to use restrooms based on their gender preference by agreeing to add single-occupant bathrooms to stores without them.Hobby Lobby and Chick-Fil-A did not respond to requests for comment on their current positions. Target did not have an immediate comment on the status of the bathroom policy.“Businesses are in a really precarious situation,” said Chang. “If Walmart stopped selling guns, it might make us feel better. But would it really be long-term change for the better for society?”To contact the reporter on this story: Jeff Green in Southfield, Michigan at jgreen16@bloomberg.netTo contact the editors responsible for this story: Janet Paskin at jpaskin@bloomberg.net;Anne Riley Moffat at ariley17@bloomberg.netFor more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com©2019 Bloomberg L.P.
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