Villainous Visionaries

August 19th, 2010 by Phil Mattera

It is tempting to refute the new book on business ethics by Andy Wales, Matthew Gorman, and Dunstan Hope with two letters; BP. The oil giant’s record of negligence in connection with the Gulf of Mexico disaster, its refinery accidents and its pipeline leaks in Alaska flies in the face of the thesis of Big Business, Big Responsibilities: that large corporations are in the vanguard of efforts to address the planet’s most pressing environmental and social problems.

The text of the book appears to have been completed before the blow-out of BP’s Macondo well this spring, but it is likely that the incident would not have merited mention if the timing had been different. Wales, Gorman and Hope seem to live in a world in which corporations act nobly and business crimes such as bribery, price-fixing, toxic waste dumping, mistreatment of workers and disregard for safety norms are either a thing of the past or are rare enough to ignore.

The authors – two of whom work for large corporations while the third (Hope) is on the staff of Business for Social Responsibility – would have us believe that many major companies have in a short period of time evolved from villains to visionaries.

To their credit, Wales, Gorman and Hope do not claim that this transformation happened spontaneously. They fully acknowledge the role of environmental and social justice campaigns in highlighting harmful and unfair business practices. Yet they fail to address corporate resistance to these campaigns, making it seem as if top executives promptly renounced pollution and exploitation as soon as an objection was raised.

Wales, Gorman and Hope admit that the initial boardroom motivation was to protect brands damaged by aggressive campaigners, but they insist that many large companies have gone beyond that defensive posture and are now engaged in a “proactive search for opportunities to improve social well-being and achieve corporate financial success at the same time.”

Their outlook is representative of the new corporate utopianism – the notion that the profit motive can be made to align perfectly with the public good, thus making global companies the perfect vehicle for reshaping the world.

It is easy to see why Wales, Gorman and Hope, who have built their careers on promoting corporate social responsibility, would embrace this view, and its appeal among the companies they advise is obvious.

But it is not clear why those of us with no vested interested in corporate canonization should go along. Even if we admit that some companies are doing some socially beneficial things, what took them so long? Are we expected to forget their decades of rapacious behavior?

It is also unclear how far should we trust companies that began to act responsibly only after being pressured to do so by outside forces, which according to Wales, Gorman and Hope include not just corporate campaigns but also growing consumer preference for ethical and sustainable goods and services. The only internal impulse that seems to be at work in socially responsible companies is the desire to make a buck from these new market opportunities.

So let me get this straight: responding to external pressures, giant corporations are doing the right thing, which turns out to be highly profitable – and we are supposed to believe this is some kind of great moral awakening?

Before passing judgment on the intentions of companies professing a commitment to social responsibility, perhaps we should take a step back and ask how real is the purported transformation. And this brings us back to BP, which is repeatedly praised by Wales, Gorman and Hope for its forward-thinking stance on issues such as climate change.

Given what we now know about BP’s reckless actions, as opposed to its high-minded principles, it is likely that its commitment to social responsibility is a smokescreen. Wales, Gorman and Hope don’t consider the possibility that many of the laudatory policies adopted by BP and other corporate leviathans are nothing more than greenwashing.

Big Business, Big Responsibilities could be dismissed as a work of corporate propaganda, but what makes it more insidious is the appeal the authors make to non-governmental organizations. The last page of the book calls on NGOs to be less suspicious of corporations and to accept them as full partners in environmental and social campaigns. I read this as an effort to bring about a unilateral ceasefire by watchdogs groups, which would lose their independence and start functioning as appendages of corporate public relations departments.

While a few NGOs have already moved in this direction, it would be foolhardy for serious campaigners to abandon their adversarial posture toward corporations. Without such pressure, big business would inevitably return to all its old tricks.

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