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Levi Strauss CEO takes a side on gun control: ‘It’s inevitable that we’re going to alienate some consumers’

Levi Strauss & Co. is setting aside more than $1 million to prevent gun violence. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Levi Strauss & Co. is taking a stand against gun violence, an unexpectedly political move from the all-American denim company that could turn off some customers — but also win it points with a new segment of shoppers.

The San Francisco-based retailer said last week it is pledging more than $1 million to support nonprofits and youth activists who are working to end gun violence. The company is also partnering with Michael Bloomberg to help create a coalition of business leaders who support gun control measures and encouraging employees to get involved in political causes.

"The gun violence epidemic in America has hit a point where something has to be done," chief executive Chip Bergh said in an interview. "It's inevitable that we're going to alienate some consumers, but we can no longer sit on the sidelines and remain silent on this issue."

He added that consumer reaction so far has been “generally very, very favorable and supportive.” (A couple of shoppers, he added, have even asked him to run for president.)

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The retailer is the latest in a string of high-profile companies, including Nike, Patagonia, Yuengling and REI, to wade into highly political debates. The wave of corporate activism, experts say, is one way for businesses to connect with politically minded shoppers, even if they risk offending others. Either way, they say, consumers are increasingly comfortable voting with their wallets — and aren't afraid to support or boycott companies based on their views.

"In a world where they no longer expect the government to fix things, people are turning to Corporate America to step in and do some good," said Peter Horst, founder of marketing consultancy CMO. "Consumers increasingly want to engage with companies whose values match theirs."

And, he said, retailers are realizing they can afford to alienate some U.S. consumers as they look abroad for a bigger chunk of their growth. Levi Strauss, which also manufactures the brands Dockers and Denizen, made the bulk of its sales — 52 percent — outside the United States last year. Sales grew 13 percent in France, Germany, Mexico and the U.K., compared to 2 percent growth in the United States.

Bergh, a former officer in the U.S. Army, said he doesn't want to repeal the Second Amendment. Instead, he's hoping to get government leaders to take specific steps to reduce gun violence, such as requiring criminal background checks of gun purchasers or limiting gun sales to those age 21 and older.

"The gun debate is very, very contested and emotional, but I think there needs to be momentum here," he said. "We are willing to take that short-term hit to do the right thing."

He said the company had not conducted market research on its consumers' views on gun control, but he noted that Levi's "is a very democratic brand" that cuts across income levels and other demographics. The company, which rose to popularity a century ago by catering to cowboys and lumberjacks in the Wild West, has shifted its strategy in recent years to appeal to higher-end, more urban shoppers. Last year it collaborated with Google to create a $350 battery-powered denim jacket that can play music, give directions and alert users to new phone calls and text messages.

Bergh said he'd had a nagging feeling that he should do more, particularly in the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

"This is an issue that has been bubbling up for a while, but now is the time for gun control," he said. "My personal view is that companies have an obligation to make the world a better place. They have to do more than just make a profit."

He joins a growing list of business leaders who are speaking out on a range of contested issues, from immigration reform to environmental causes.

"It started with millennials and now it's everyone: People care a lot about what the companies behind their products stand for," said Anthony Johndrow, chief executive of Reputation Economy Advisors, a New York-based firm. "There's a sense of urgency as brands try to figure out what they believe in."

Sometimes, he said, the answer is simple, like when outdoors goods retailers Patagonia, REI and the North Face publicly denounced President Trump's 2017 executive order slashing the size of two national monuments in Utah. "The president stole your land,” Patagonia posted on its website. (Congressional Republicans were quick to fire back: “Patagonia: Don’t buy it,” the House Natural Resources Committee said in an email to a list of subscribers.)

Nike, meanwhile, triggered controversy last week when it announced that Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL player who protested police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, would be the face of its latest "Just Do It" advertising campaign.

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There were strong feelings on both sides. Some cut the Nike "swoosh" off their socks or set their sneakers on fire. Others said they'd be stocking up at the nearest Nike store. Although the company's stock initially took a 3 percent hit, the move may ultimately be good for business. Nike's online sales soared 31 percent after the announcement, according to data from Edison Trends, a San Francisco-based firm.

"It's become part business calculus, part strategic gut-level assessment of your conviction and passions," said Horst, former chief marketing officer for Hershey.

In Levi's case, Bergh says it's important for the company to "do the right thing," even if not everyone agrees. When the Boy Scouts of America banned gay troop leaders in the late 1970s, Levi Strauss pulled all financial support from the organization. The backlash from consumers was swift, but "we knew it was the right thing to do," Bergh said.

"Twenty years from now, when people look back," he added, "we want them to say, 'Levi's was on the right side of good.'"

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