Can corporations change their ways?

Submitted by Daniel_Randall on 9 November, 2004 - 8:17

Under the banner of “Corporate Social Responsibility” the big companies and transnationals claim to have changed their ways. BP is now green. Nike promises transparency. Gap spends a packet on rebranding itself as a company that cares about the people who stitch its clothes.

They’ve all been green-washed. Everyone is ethical.

But all that has happened is that big business — under pressure from campaigners and media scandals — have taken up the demands for Corporate Codes of Conduct and are using ethical-sounding PR as a weapon to fend off scrutiny.

Sadly some activists have been taken in by the PR offensive. Some NGOs even collaborate with ethical initiatives and provide cover for business.

In this article, Ursula McTaggart, a socialist activist in the American campus campaign, United Students Against Sweatshops, looks at the corporate record.

The text first appeared in the magazine Against the Current.

FOR Dow Chemical “corporate social responsibility” means encouraging its employees to volunteer in their communites — as long as that doesn’t take up company time.

Although they may be a part of decision-making, rarely have human rights or environmental concerns won out against the economic bottom line. Dow, which is now the sole owner of Union Carbide, still refuses to clean up Bhopal in India where a Union Carbide gas leak killed and injured thousands. Compensation is out of the question.

In a letter to Dow employees on the eighteenth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, Michael Parker wrote that “what we cannot and will not do — no matter where Greenpeace takes their protests and how much they seek to undermine Dow’s reputation with the general public — is accept responsibility for the Bhopal accident... I also hope you will not let this deter your pride in our company and all that it stands for.”

Dow’s expressed concern for its own hometown of Midland in Michigan, has not impressed all of its residents. Since the late l970s, when early studies on dioxin in the Midland area were released, the community has debated the risks of dioxin contamination from the plant and its emissions in the Tittabawassee River.

A group of citizens is now attempting to wage a class-action suit against Dow. They seek compensation for increased health risks and lost property value due to soil contamination on their properties.

In recent confrontations with Bhopal activists and Midland residents Dow has taken a militant stand to protect its shareholders. In the Midland Daily News it has publicly ridiculed homeowners for selling their homes at full value.

These moves are by no means unexpected. Nick Nichols, CEO of Nichols-Dezenhall Communications Management Group Ltd, expresses this type of aggresive response:

“Businesses are being attacked bv activists with increasing vehemence and with increasing frequency. But reactions vary: appeasement or attack? It is important to heed George Santayana’s sage observation of a century ago: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’. If appeasement is chosen, then retreat and defeat will be the outcomes for businesses.”

Instead of (or in addition to) aggressive, confrontational moves, many corporations hope to solve their problems through successful public relations. Public relations has more recently assumed a new guise: corporate social responsibility.

CSR — trivialising human rights, and social justice by slotting it into a corporate acronym — has been a particularly powerful tool in the war against activists. As a business tactic, CSR aims to engage activists in a battle for public legitimacy.

The corporations that employ CSR are not necessanly different from the ones that employ aggressive tactics. Dow for instance was one of the first multinational corporations to embrace public relations tactics, and its spokesmen have become adept at rattling off the rhetonc of corporate social responsibility.

Armed with a large PR staff and budget, a team of “scientific experts” ready to testify, and full access to a willing press, corporations like Dow are powerful foes precisely because thev have the flexibility to move between politically correct and aggressive anti-activist techniques.

In a town like Midland, where many people support Dow because they fear the loss of union jobs if Dow cuts and runs, public relations may help the community reaffirm the strength and benevolence of its employer.

Instead of separating corporations by their sincenty or lack thereof, socialist activists must refuse to lose sight of our larger demands. In the case of Dow, we don’t want to impose slightly more strict regulatory codes or earn a contribution to the Bhopal fund.

This substitutes philanthropy, good feelings, and sanctioned levels of exploitation of pollution in place of true, structural change. Minor concessions may be helpful in assuaging immediate and pressing problems, but we ultimately want to change the system itself. We not only need to clean up Bhopal and Midland, but we need to give the people of Bhopal and Midland control over their land and production.

Activists often settle for these smaller concessions because they feel powerless in the fight against the corporate world. But corporations do not see them in the same way. Multinational corporations are terrified of activists.

John Stauber highlights that fear in his investigation of the PR industry, Toxic Sludge is Good for You. He reprints “The Clorox PR Crisis Plan,” which was developed by the Ketchum PR firm in 1991 for the Clorox Company. The following scenarios are presented as crises:

1. Greenpeace activists arrive at Clorox headquarters with signs, banners, bull horns and several local television crews... They release the results of a new “study” linking chlorine exposure to cancer.

2. The movement back to more natural household cleaning products is gaining momentum. A prominent newspaper colunmlist targets the environmental hazards of liquid chlorine bleach in an article, which is syndicated to newspapers across the country. The columnist calls for consumers to boycott Clorox products.

Why is the public relations panic at major corporations important? First, it presents a stnkingly different picture of activism than we receive from the media. The marginalisation and minimalisation of activist power leads the general public to feel hopeless about its ability to change the social structure. But crisis plans like Clorox’s remind us that while the media might not take the activist threat seriously, corporations certainty do.

Second we must recognise that if corporations have crisis plans, we as activists not only need to be generating these crises, but also need to be predicting and countering the corporate responses to them.

As socialists, we need to reject the integration of activists into corporate bureaucracy through CSR projects. Our project is an anti-capitalist, anti-corporate one that cannot be achieved simply by adjusting the levels of acceptable pollution or raising the wages in Indonesia marginally.

That is not to say that small gains can’t sometimes be important. As an activist with United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) at Indiana University, I face this conflict between realistic short-term goals and long-term anti-capitalist goals on a daily basis.

National affiliates of USAS have succeeded in publicising sweatshop exploitation and in gaining significant concessions from universities and corporations. At many universities, USAS has forced licensees that produce university products to adhere to a code of conduct that includes basic worker organising rights and ultimately aims to raise the standard of living for workers around the world.

A Workers’ Rights Committee made up of administrators and students enforces that code of conduct by threatening to cut contracts when corporations violate the code. Although this has been a major step forward in our ability to negotiate with the university and with corporations on a case-by-case level, it also presents some dangers.

By working more closely with administrators and corporations, we run the risk of submitting to bureaucracy and accepting minor concessions rather than fighting for major changes. And because we no longer need to stage a major battle in the public sphere in order to chastise a corporation, we do so much less often. This is problematic because the public sphere is ultimately the arena in which we must win.

CSR is dangerous because it is seductive. It nominally and rhetorically returns human concerns to the centre of production. But capitalism never truly works this way.

Bhopali survivors travel to Michigan each year for the shareholders meeting, and in January 2004 several activists from Michigan traveled to the World Social Forum in Mumbai, India to speak on Dow’s dioxin contamination in Michigan. At the same time, they visited Bhopal as guests of the survivors’ movement. Such connections are crucial in the development of a true socialist people’s movement.

The anti-Dow movement illustrates how socialism today can benefit from the integration of labour and environmentalist concerns.

Environmentalism, though it has sometimes been insular and limited as in the case of some NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) movements, is nonetheless powerful because it can mobilise an entire community — not just the workers — against corporate power.

Because workers today often fear outsourcing or corporate relocation if they challenge their employer, community activists may be more likely to mobilise public opinion. Also, enviromnental concerns associated even with NlMBYism increase the social and political consciousness of community members who may initially be interested only in protecting themselves or their families.

Finally, due to the fact that environmental contamination disproportionately affects impoverished communities, the potential exists for an alliance between the two movements and alliance that will stress a socialist restructuring of wealth and power.

A socialist system today would ideally alter not only who controls the means of production but also what kinds of goods should be produced. It would put those who are currently exploited in control of their own products and environments.

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