They might be looking longingly at the 2003 Business Week cover story headlined: “Can Anything Stop Toyota: An Inside Look at How It’s Reinventing the Auto Industry.” Or the 2006 New York Times paean entitled “Toyota Shows Big Three How It’s Done.” Perhaps they are going back even further to the 1997 love letter from Fortune: “How Toyota Defies Gravity.”
These days Toyota is instead experiencing the unbearable heaviness of being exposed as just another unscrupulous automaker that, whether through incompetence or greed, puts many of its customers behind the wheel of a deathtrap.
New revelations that the company knew about the defective gas pedals for years before taking action are all the more scandalous because Toyota had a longstanding reputation not only for business prowess but also for social responsibility.
The company, of course, fostered this image. Its website proclaims: “Toyota has sought harmony between people, society, and the global environment, as well as the sustainable development of society, through manufacturing. Since its foundation, Toyota has continuously worked to contribute to the sustainable development of society through provision of innovative and high-quality products and services that lead the times.”
All big corporations make similar declarations, but Toyota managed to convince outside observers of its pure heart. Last year the Ethisphere Institute included the automaker on its list of “the World’s Most Ethical Companies.” Toyota is ranked 14th on the “Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World.” And it received the highest score among automakers in a 2006 CERES assessment of corporate governance changes adopted by large corporations to deal with climate change.
Toyota’s environmental reputation is not completely unblemished. In 2007 the company incurred the wrath of green groups for its opposition to an effort to toughen fuel economy standards in the United States (a stance it modified in response to the pressure). In 2003 Toyota agreed to pay $34 million to settle U.S. Environmental Protection Agency charges that it violated the Clean Air Act by selling 2.2 million vehicles with defective smog-control computers.
Overall, however, Toyota was regarded as a much more environmentally enlightened company than Detroit’s Big Three. In fact, its successful efforts to bring hybrids into the auto industry mainstream made it something of a corporate hero in green circles. Michael Brune, who was recently named the new executive director of the Sierra Club, brags that he and his wife have been driving a Prius since 2004.
Toyota’s more laudable stances on sustainability issues did not prevent it from being completely retrograde when it came to respecting the collective bargaining rights of its U.S. employees. It has successfully kept unions out of its heavily-subsidized American plants and has taken advantage of contingent workers to keep down costs in those operations.
Just as good environmental policies do not automatically lead to good labor practices, the current safety scandal shows that a company can be green and totally irresponsible at the same time. Despite Toyota’s claim about promoting “harmony between people, society, and the global environment,” it appears the company put its business interests ahead of the safety of its customers and others with whom they share the road.
The automaker’s safety scandal is another indication that voluntary corporate social responsibility policies go only so far. It is only through rigorous government regulation, backed by aggressive environmental and other public interest activism, that major corporations can be kept honest.