WashU Experts: Retail giants Dick’s, Walmart regulate where politicians won’t

Corporate social responsibility is just tip of the iceberg

A large crowd, including students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, gathers outside the old capitol building in Tallahassee, Fla., Feb. 21 to protest gun laws. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Two U.S. retailers made moves this week to regulate their gun sales based on principle — moves that legislators failed to make in recent years despite public outcry following each incident in a line of mass-shooting tragedies. A pair of Washington University in St. Louis experts say that these actions represent “an expansion of corporate social responsibility,” even if the retailers financially may suffer amid something of a consumer backlash.

Tim Bartley, a professor of sociology in Arts & Sciences, is author of a forthcoming book exploring how retailers such as Walmart, Nike, Ikea, The Home Depot and others are using supplier contracts and rules to set and enforce global standards for working conditions, environmental sustainability and other causes once regulated by governments.


“What’s clear, though, is the moves by Dick’s and Walmart are indicative of a much larger trend, in which big box retailers and well-known brands are becoming de facto regulators, often picking up where governments have left off or do not want to go,” Bartley said.

On Feb. 28, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart separately announced gun-sale changes in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., high school shootings. Dick’s said it will no longer sell assault-style rifles, high-capacity magazines and any firearms to customers under 21. Walmart likewise limited gun and ammunition sales to consumers over 21.

Raphael Thomadsen, associate professor of marketing at Olin Business School, considered the moves through a business lens.

Thomadsen called it a principled move unlikely to increase profits. “While there are segments that will like the move and reward Dick’s and Walmart, there are gun owners who may boycott them,” he said. “This does not seem to be a business strategy but a strategy to bring about a better world.”

Bartley noted that in 2008, Walmart joined with the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns to bolster its background check and firearm tracing systems, and in 2012, Dick’s restricted rifle sales to a degree in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. However, Dick’s did not apply the same changes to its Field & Stream line of stores.

“It isn’t clear how much of a difference these types of policies will make for gun availability,” Bartley said. “After all, by one recent count, there are more gun stores than grocery stores in the U.S. — more than 50,000 in total, only a handful of which have voluntarily adopted standards restricting sales.”

The signal that is clear to Bartley: Big-box retailers are doing what legislators have failed to do over recent years: making regulation a decision by the retailers.

“Consider food safety, where brands like Dole and retailers like Kroger play an important role in enforcing standards for food safety in their supply chains, stretching from the lettuce fields of California to the apple juice factories of China and shrimp farms of Vietnam,” Bartley said. “Or consider the use of toxic phthalates in vinyl flooring and cosmetics, which is regulated more stringently by companies like The Home Depot and Target than by the U.S. government. Some retailers have moved closer to the precautionary approaches used in Europe and California than the general national standards in the U.S.”

Bartley said companies also have sought to build their reputations for corporate social responsibility by adopting standards for sustainability and fairness in their global supply chains. “Ikea and Staples, for instance, have pushed suppliers of timber and paper to get certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a nonprofit, standard-setting and eco-labeling initiative,” Bartley said. “Following waves of scandal and protest, Apple, Nike, The Gap and many other brands have pledged to improve working conditions in their suppliers’ factories.”

Bartley said this movement began most visibly in the 1990s, when reformers called for retailers to come to the rescue — and the retailers heeded the call. The reformers pressed large corporations “to take responsibility for a variety of human rights, labor, environmental, and safety problems in their supply chains,” Bartley said. “Like Dick’s in 2012, some companies have made high-profile commitments only to implement them selectively or backslide over time.”


These corporations have been more willing to regulate their suppliers than their own ordering practices. “In general, even fairly credible global standards have often proven incapable of changing entrenched cultures of production,” Bartley said.

“Nevertheless, more than just an expansion of corporate social responsibility, the past 30 years will be remembered as an era in which the largest global corporations were, for better or worse, elevated to the level of being regulators of national and global markets,” Bartley said. “Companies have become not only the targets of public regulation but also — and sometimes instead — the enforcers of private regulation. The expansion of private authority has occurred rapidly in the global economy, and scholars are now trying to catch up.”

Thomadsen pointed out that Walmart’s action, following Dick’s lead from earlier in the day, contained a business element — translating into slightly less exposure.
“I see less risk for them, because they likely will still retain many of their gun-owning customers due to their very low prices,” Thomadsen said.

“While these firms may face a backlash for being early movers, I do think the moves reflect a sentiment that is growing for some form of limited gun control,” he said. “Also, these moves make it easier for other established firms to raise the minimum age with a more limited backlash.”

Bartley’s book, “Rules without Rights: Land, Labor, and Private Authority in the Global Economy,” will be released this month through Oxford University Press. He is available at bartleyt@wustl.edu.
Thomadsen can be reached at thomadsen@wustl.edu or at 314-935-3573.

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