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What Big Food Can Teach Gunmakers About Social Responsibility
Guns stand for sale at a gun show on November 24, 2018 in Naples, Florida. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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What Big Food Can Teach Gunmakers About Social Responsibility

Hank Cardello

The bitter debate over gun-related violence, fueled by one tragedy after another, has left no room for negotiation or progress on stemming this public health tinderbox. Gun control advocates and their supporters in Congress battle it out with the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their lawmaker allies.  Bereaved families of gun victims plea for more restrictions; an angry media stokes fires of outrage; and defiant pro-assault weapons memes spread on social media.

One voice is conspicuously absent: individual gun manufacturers. They have not yet learned the lessons from enlightened food manufacturers, retailers and many purveyors of “sin” products that have moved beyond simply selling more goods and have taken a stand, owned the issue impacting their sector and acted to fix it. It’s time for a gunmaker, any gunmaker, to break from the party line and differentiate themselves by siding publicly with the majority of Americans who want common sense curbs on unfettered gun ownership.

Why are the silencers still on? It could be because gunmakers are afraid that sticking their head above the parapet will make them a target of their powerful trade organization, the NRA. Yet other companies have benefited by making bold moves that put them at odds with their industry associations and their peers. The National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS) never recommended curbing tobacco sales, but CVS got rid of cigarettes five years ago and is now thriving as it transitions to being a health care company.  The US Brewers Association never took a stand on drunk driving, but in 1982 Anheuser Busch launched its “Know When to Say When” campaign and subsequently drove lower-alcohol light beers to become best-sellers.

Food companies, increasingly under scrutiny for their impact on the environment and role in the obesity crisis, have shown remarkable willingness to break from from the pack.  A decade ago several big food companies created the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation to address the obesity crisis, and shaved over 6 trillion calories from the food supply. More recently, three large food companies – Nestlé, Mars and Unilever – exited the industry’s primary trade association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), in a dispute over policies related to responsible marketing, sustainability and transparency. Along with Danone, these companies formed their own forward-looking association, the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance, to advance policies that “shape what people eat and how it impacts their health, communities, and the planet.”

These pioneering companies have taken a stand on social issues, for business reasons as well as to protect themselves from the wrath of consumers and legislators. But sadly, gunmakers continue to hide behind the Second Amendment, let the NRA be their strident lobbyist and pretend that gun violence is not their problem.  This is dangerous not only for the public, but also for gunmakers’ longevity as viable businesses.

According to a FutureCast report, Millennials make purchase decisions based on “self, society and planet.” Companies that violate these core tenets will be brushed aside as this 70+ million strong cohort looks for alternatives that align with their values. And these consumers are exerting pressure on companies that ally themselves with gunmakers or the NRA and will continue to do so.

As the threats on companies to take a stand on social issues continues to intensify, many companies are already starting to shun gun sellers, positioning themselves with the majority of consumers who’ve had enough.  Salesforce recently barred some gun sellers from using its software;  Amazon and eBay have banned gun sales;  Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods no longer sell  assault weapons; and Bank of America has stopped lending to companies that manufacturer AR-15 rifles.

Here’s what can be done now:

  • Gunmakers need to align their businesses with shifting consumer attitudes. A recent Rasmussen report survey indicated that 68% of Gen Z and millennial respondents supported stricter gun laws. Combined, these generations number over 160 million and comprise just under 50% of the U.S. population. Reconfiguring company goals to the values of these cohorts – perhaps as a socially responsible protection company rather than a purveyor of deadly force – would go a long way to sustaining these businesses.  Gun manufacturers who see their future narrowly as selling lethal weapons are leaving lots of money on the table.
  • Set an ambitious industry goal to reduce gun deaths by 90% in 10 years. This is a tall order as the U.S. ranks #1 in firearm deaths among developed (OECD) countries, with 10.2 deaths per 100,000. But examples abound that lower rates can be achieved: most of Europe records only a fifth of that rate; Japan and South Korea have virtually no gun deaths; and the original penal colony, Australia, records only 1.0 deaths per 100,000 each year. By stepping up with this BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) commitment, the gun industry would elevate its credibility and transparency in dealing with a critical public health issue. It would improve its reputation, signal that it “gets it” to millennial and Gen Z consumers, and shed its “pariah” label.
  • Rank company progress in reducing violence. Nothing causes companies and industries to change like a performance ranking. For example, both Consumer Reports and the JD Power Ranking of initial automobile quality have served to create competition to improve auto quality and provide consumers devices to determine which companies deserve their business. In the case of gunmakers, changes in safety practices, actions taken to reduce violence, ensuring proper identification for purchases and other factors would be tallied to devise the ranking and report it annually.

The gun industry has no more excuses. In the face of a serious public health crisis and public outrage that will be stirred anew with every mass shooting, companies can no longer stick their heads in the sand and simply focus on increasing revenues and profits. They can choose to step up their game, meet consumer demands for change and make a real difference…for the sake of our children, consumers, employees, communities and the next generation of customers. Or they can be the odd-man-out.

Read in Forbes.

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