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​CEOs wade into debate over South Carolina's Confederate flag

The Charleston, South Carolina, church killings are prompting soul-searching among many Americans. That also includes the top executives at some of the country's biggest companies.

In wake of the shooting, Apple (AAPL) CEO Tim Cook wrote on Twitter, "My thoughts are with the victim's families in SC. Let us honor their lives by eradicating racism & removing the symbols & words that feed it." Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Satya Nadella, also writing on Twitter, said he hoped that "together we can convert hate & racism to peace & understanding around the globe."

Companies aren't limiting themselves to words. Walmart (WMT), the biggest retailer in the world, said Monday that it's removing all items featuring the Confederate flag from its stores and website.

The fact that high-profile corporate executives are urging South Carolina leaders to remove the Confederate flag, used by the Southern states as their flag during the Civil War, illustrates the growing willingness of companies to take a public stand on social issues. To some, that civic streak may also have a whiff of opportunism.

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said last year that after spending days seeking to attract employers to her state, "I have not had one conversation with a single CEO about the Confederate flag," which has flown over its statehouse.

Although it may be true that CEOs are speaking out mostly on social issues around which there is clear or growing public consensus, such as the rising and widespread support for gay marriage, there's another reason why corporate leaders are staking out a position on non-business issues: It's good business.

Growing calls to remove Confederate flag from S.C. statehouse

Surveys show that consumers increasingly want to support companies whose products and business practices align with their personal values. That's increasingly true for the millennial generation, or those Americans currently between the ages of 18 to 34. This group recently surpassed the baby boomers as America's largest generation, and will have increasing purchasing power as they get jobs and climb the income ladder.

But millennials appear to have specific wants when they shop or patronize a store. One survey found that, among recent generations, people in the age group are the most focused on corporate social responsibility when making a purchasing decision, while most millennials said they'd bought a product with a social benefit.

Still, taking a stand against racism can backfire, such as the controversy over Starbucks' (SBUX) "Stand Together" campaign earlier this year, which was part of the company's diversity and racial equality campaign. Baristas wrote "Race Together" on customers' cups, with some critics calling the effort inappropriate and opportunistic. Others wondered how Starbucks workers could actually start dialogues about race while rushing to fix drinks for customers.

So far, CEOs expressing support for ending racism and taking down the Confederate flag have generally received positive feedback from consumers. Cook's tweet has been favorited 3,100 times, for instance.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield has gained admires for his Twitter tirade against a Wall Street Journal editorial that said, "What causes young men such as Dylann Roof to erupt in homicidal rage, whatever their motivation, is a problem that defies explanation." Butterfield decried the newspaper's avoidance of examining America's racial problems, while using a few epithets to describe the article.

Of course, it's not only CEOs who are wading into the debate about racism and the symbolism behind the Confederate battle flag. Politicians and voters have also expressed their desire for change. Haley said on Monday that it's "time to move" the flag since it "does not represent the future of our great state."