Social sustainability

After Newtown: The business world's way forward

December 19, 2012: 1:18 PM ET

We've had the guns versus butter debate for decades, but not as deliberately as we should have, particularly outside the context of government spending. That's changing.121219061524-newtown-school-gallery-horizontal

FORTUNE -- Cerberus Capital Management's decision to sell its ownership stake in gun maker Freedom Group is just the beginning.

We've had the guns versus butter debate for decades, but not as deliberately as we should have, particularly outside the context of government spending. That's changing. Throughout 2012, boards and both individual and institutional investors who care about responsible investing are paying more attention to social policy.

Tragedies seem to be driving some of the change. The aftermath of the Newtown shootings is the most recent example of  increased scrutiny of corporations' responsibilities, but the momentum this year was already picking up. Think about the labor issues related to Apple (AAPL) and Foxconn, Hershey (HSY), and, more recently, the Wal-Mart (WMT) supply chain disaster responsible for the deaths of 112 people trapped in a Bangledesh factory fire last month.

MORE: Cerberus: We want out of gun biz

Newtown represents "the culture we live in," says Cathy Rowan, director of socially responsible investments at Trinity Health, encompassing "public health issues that corporations need to address because it benefits them to operate in healthy communities."

Over the last decade, Rowan has worked with companies like Wal-Mart, Target (TGT), Gamestop (GME), Best Buy (BBY), and Toys 'R Us to establish policies and practices such as point-of-sale prompts to prevent minors from purchasing violent videos. She has also worked with Electronic Arts (EA) on its marketing of video games that are M-rated but seem to be marketed to kids. (The Newtown shooter apparently was a violent game aficionado.) Too frequently, these games are not only violent, she says, but include gender and racial de-valuation as well.

Mobile devices, Rowan says, raise greater concerns, and Rowan says that she confronts industry resistance when she suggests that games have a warning for parents if it includes "acts of violence that are rewarded or go unpunished." More

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