Oil Giants Pressed for Changes Instead of Promises

A substantial number of large corporations would have us believe they are in the forefront of the efforts to address issues such as climate change, inequality and racial injustice. They brag about their commitment to corporate social responsibility and claim to be devoted to high-minded ESG (environmental, social and governance) principles in their operations.

There are two big reasons to be skeptical about this self-congratulatory stance. The first is that Big Business is often the cause of those problems, not the solution. The second is that the remedial measures companies claim to be taking often turn out to be illusory.

Two recent developments suggest that that corporations may be unable to go on running these cons. In an unprecedented ruling, a court in the Netherlands ordered petroleum giant Royal Dutch Shell to cut its carbon dioxide emissions sharply to align with the Paris agreement on climate change. This was said to be the first time a company faced a legal mandate of this kind. What made the decision even more significant is that Shell was held responsible not only for its own emissions but also those of its supply chain. This suit, brought by environmental groups, was a legal breakthrough for the climate movement.

Yet, the ruling was also consequential in that it challenges the notion that corporations should be allowed to make their own decisions on how to address environmental and social goals. And in that sense it rocks the foundations of ESG, which is built on the idea of voluntary measures. Companies have gotten a great deal of mileage out of making claims about what they have done or plan to do. Many of these statements cannot be verified, and there is no enforcement mechanism for holding corporations to their promises.  

Much of what goes by the name of corporate social responsibility is a method of warding off more stringent government regulation by claiming that the private sector can address the issues on its own.

Shell is a prime example of a company that says one thing and does another. On its website, the company claims that its commitment to sustainability dates back to 1997 and that it works “to embed this sustainability commitment into our strategy, our business processes and decision-making.”

Yet during this same quarter-century, Shell has been embroiled in an ongoing controversy over its practices in Nigeria. Environmental groups alleged that the company’s operations were responsible for a large number of pipeline ruptures, gas flaring and other forms of contamination that also contributed to greenhouse gas emissions. The Nigerian government responded to protests with a wave of repression, including the arrest and killing of prominent activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. Shell denied it was involved, but critics pointed to the role played by the company in supporting the military dictatorship.

A lawsuit brought by Friends of the Earth Netherlands and four Nigerian farmers was filed in a Dutch court, alleging that spills from Shell pipelines damaged the livelihood of the farmers. The case dragged on for years, but in early 2021 the Hague Court of Appeal finally issued a decision on the case, ruling that Shell had to pay compensation to the farmers and install equipment to prevent future pipeline leaks.

Shell is not the only oil major on the hot seat. After years of leading the corporate climate denial effort, Exxon Mobil claimed to be changing its stance. It may have abandoned the overt denialism, but it resisted taking significant steps to reduce its carbon footprint. Now, institutional investors have run out of patience.

Led by an upstart hedge fund called Engine No.1, investors succeeded in electing two members to the Exxon board against the wishes of CEO Darren Woods. Those directors vowed to use their position to press the company to move toward carbon neutrality.

The two will be a minority on the board, but their election will make it harder for Woods to ignore the calls for Exxon to do more to address the climate crisis.

The revolt within Exxon and Shell’s legal setbacks will not by themselves transform business, but they are indications that large corporations may find it increasingly difficult to rely on vague commitments and instead may have to take concrete, enforceable measures to address climate change and other urgent issues.  

Toxic Corporations

Given the Biden Administration’s focus on the climate crisis, the announcement by General Motors that it will transition to an all-electric fleet, and the growing emphasis on sustainability among institutional investors, one might be tempted to think the United States is embarking on an environmental rebirth.

Despite some good signs, it is worth remembering that many large corporations—including ones that tout green credentials—are still spewing vast amounts of dangerous emissions into the air, land and water. Perhaps the best reminders of this reality are the data compilations produced by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

PERI recently released the latest version of its Toxic 100 lists, which cover air, water and greenhouse gas emissions. The lists are based on data from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory and its Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. The EPA publishes the data only for individual U.S. facilities, whereas PERI combines the emission amounts by parent company and thus reveals which large corporations account for the largest pollution shares. PERI’s approach is much like the one we use in Violation Tracker. It helps a lot that database wizard Rich Puchalsky of Grassroots Connection works on both projects.

There are a total of about 220 parent companies that appear on one or more of the three PERI lists. The Netherlands-based chemical company LyondellBasel Industries, which owns heavily polluting plants in Texas and other states, is at the top of the air list. Military contractor Northrop Grumman tops the water list, mainly because of the massive emissions at its subsidiary Alliant Techsystem’s facility in Virginia. The parent with the most greenhouse gas emissions is, ironically, Vistra Energy, which is heavily involved in renewable power generation and storage.

I was interested to see which corporations appeared on all three lists. I found that 16 firms have that dubious distinction. Not surprisingly, they include the country’s largest petroleum, chemical and steel producers.

Five of the group appear in the top 50 on each of the three lists: Dow Inc., Koch Industries, Berkshire Hathaway, ExxonMobil and Marathon Petroleum. Dow is the only one of these to be in the top ten of two different lists. It ranks fourth in water emissions and fifth in air emissions (as well as 44th in greenhouse gases). Koch Industries is in the top 25 of all three lists.

Dow’s position as the worst overall polluter comes as no surprise, given that the company has a toxic history that dates back decades and includes its notorious role in the production of napalm and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Its reputation only worsened after its 2001 acquisition of Union Carbide, which refused to pay adequate compensation for the thousands of victims of the 1984 disaster at its pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. Dow was also embroiled in a major scandal involving faulty silicone breast implants.

The blots on Dow’s record are not all in the distant past. In 2019, for instance, it reached a $98 million settlement with the U.S. Justice Department, the State of Michigan and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe to restore areas damages by hazardous releases from Dow’s operations in Midland, Michigan.

You wouldn’t learn any of this background by reading the history section of the company’s website, which includes a page headlined “Sustainability from the Start: Dow’s Rich History of Environmental Stewardship.” As for the present, the site declares: “At Dow, we’re working to deliver a sustainable future for the world by connecting and collaborating to find new options for materials that make life better for everyone.”

This sort of greenwashing language is all too typical in the materials large corporations publish about themselves. PERI’s Toxic 100 shows that these companies have a long way to go before they can accurately depict themselves as paragons of environmental virtue.

Solving the Corporate Identity Crisis

Like the Republican Party, Corporate America is embroiled in a battle between its evil impulses and its better angels. Nowhere is this clearer than with regard to environmental policy.

On one side are the ESG proponents such as BlackRock’s CEO Larry Fink, who according to the New York Times, is using his firm’s role as a massive institutional investor to pressure corporations to embrace sustainable practices. In his annual letter to companies, he called not just for vague aspirations but specific plans that are incorporated in long-term strategies and reviewed by boards of directors.

General Motors has just announced that it will phase out gasoline-powered cars and trucks and will sell only zero-emissions vehicles by 2035. The company will spend $27 billion developing about 30 types of electric vehicles.

At the same time, fossil fuel companies are going ballistic over the Biden Administration’s plan to suspend oil and gas leasing on federal lands, despite the fact that some 90 percent of exploration occurs on private property and is not affected by the executive order. Biden has also not called for a ban on fracking, despite allegations during the presidential campaign that this was his real plan.

The conflict within the business world was epitomized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which issued a press release that welcomed the Biden Administration’s focus on climate change while rejecting the leasing action.

There is also a corporate identity crisis with regard to employment practices, especially those in the high-tech sector. For many years, Silicon Valley companies had reputations as great places to work and were even accused of coddling their employees.

Now companies such as Amazon have replaced Walmart as the exemplars of bad employers. That image has intensified as groups of workers have begun to turn to collective action to address their concerns. Rather than embracing the right of employees to have a real voice at work, high-tech employers are adopting old-fashioned union-busting tactics. Amazon has even taken a move from the Donald Trump playbook by opposing mail-in voting during a representation election in Alabama.

The one clear lesson from the corporate inconsistencies is that ESG and other voluntary business practices are no substitute for strong government oversight. We should not have to wait until big business decides whether it really wants to help save the planet or will cling to fossil fuels as long as possible.

We should also not have to wait until giant companies decide whether they will treat their workers with respect or continue to regard them as little more than vassals.

It is thus encouraging that the Biden Administration is taking decisive action to restore effective regulation of both the environment and the workplace as well as areas such as consumer protection. Once agencies such as the EPA, the NLRB and the CFPB go back to enforcing the law in an aggressive manor, corporate ambivalence will become much less relevant and we can be confident that the entire private sector will feel pressured to do the right thing.

High-Minded Hypocrisy

As they push forward to fill a Supreme Court vacancy shortly before a presidential election, Republicans are putting on a master class in hypocrisy. A new report on self-proclaimed socially responsible corporations reminds us that the tendency to say one thing and do another can also be seen in the world of business.

The study, produced by consulting firm KKS Advisors and an initiative called Test of Corporate Purpose (TCP), looks at large corporations that were signatories to a much-ballyhooed statement issued in 2019 under the auspices of the Business Roundtable. That statement was meant to give the impression that big business is no longer concerned only with maximizing returns for shareholders and is promoting the well-being of other stakeholders such as employees.

Some of us responded to the Roundtable’s statement with skepticism, but KKS and TCP decided to put the 181 signatories to the test, looking at their behavior in dealing with the pandemic and the problem of inequality. Basing its analysis on news coverage of corporate actions, the report compared signatories and non-signatories on topics such as workplace safety, healthcare access, wage levels, diversity and environmental justice. The evaluations used data prepared by Truvalue Labs using the framework of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board.

The report’s conclusion is that signatories were slightly less likely to respond in a responsible way to the pandemic and slightly more likely to do so with regard to inequality—in other words, endorsement of the Roundtable statement did not make a big difference one way or the other. KKS and TCP put it this way: “our results suggest that corporate commitments to purpose are less informative about a company’s future performance on social and human capital issues than other indicators. What matters more is whether a company has a strong track record of proactively managing issues that may become material during a crisis, and whether a company is an early responder on relevant issues during a crisis.”

I’m not sure exactly what is meant by “proactively managing issue” and being an “early responder” may be a good or bad thing depending on the nature of the response. I also think the report goes too far in trying to use news coverage to assess and rank corporate behavior.

My preference is to use concrete evidence relating to corporate behavior—especially the extent to which companies have been found to be violating regulations relating to the workplace, the environment, consumer protection, etc.

When the Roundtable statement was initially released, I ran the names of the signatories through Violation Tracker and found that they accounted for more than $197 billion in cumulative penalties, with 21 of them having penalty totals of $1 billion or more.

Serious violators can also be found among the companies—both signatories and non-signatories—that receive the highest ratings in the KKS-TCP report, which groups the firms into four quartiles without listing specific scores. For example, included in the quartile with the best ratings is drug giant Novartis, which according to Violation Tracker has paid more than $1.5 billion in fines and settlements over issues such as the promotion of drugs for purposes not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

That figure will increase to more than $2 billion next week when the database is updated to include recent cases such as one in which Novartis paid $642 million to settle Justice Department allegations relating to kickbacks and other illegal payments. Also in the first quartile are other repeat offenders such as the French bank BNP Paribas, whose Violation Tracker penalty total is more than $12 billion.

Until large corporations end their unlawful conduct, they have no claim to being models of social responsibility.

Exorcising Evil at Google

For the past two decades, Google’s Code of Conduct has included the phrase Don’t Be Evil. It used to be at the beginning of that document but now it is relegated to the end, appearing almost as an afterthought.

That turns out to be appropriate, given that Google can no longer pretend to be a paragon of virtue. The latest example of this move to the dark side is the announcement by the Federal Trade Commission and the New York State Attorney General that Google is paying $170 million to settle allegations that its subsidiary YouTube committed serious violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. It was said to have done this by collecting personal information from under-age viewers of online videos without their parents’ consent.

Google and its parent company Alphabet Inc. will be facing more headaches. There have been recent reports that a large group of state attorneys general are getting ready to announce a major antitrust investigation of Google, whose search engine is essentially a monopoly and which has dominant positions in other areas as well.

The company has already been targeted in Europe. Last year the EU hit Google with a $5 billion fine for abusing its control over cellphone operating systems, and earlier this year the Europeans imposed a $1.6 billion penalty for abusing its control over web searches.

Google’s misconduct is not all of recent vintage. In 2012 it paid a $22 million fine to the FTC to settle allegations that it misrepresented to users of Apple’s Safari Internet browser that it would not place tracking cookies or serve targeted ads to them, violating an earlier privacy settlement between the company and the agency. The following year it had to pay $17 million to a group of three dozen state AGs to settle allegations of unauthorized placement of cookies on web browsers. Around the same time it paid $7 million to another set of AGs for the unauthorized collection of data from unsecured wireless networks across the country.

In 2014 it paid to $19 million the FTC to resolve allegations that it unfairly billed consumers for in-app charges incurred by children without their parents’ consent.

For a long time, Google promoted itself as an outstanding place to work. Yet that image has eroded as well. In 2015 it and three other tech giants had to pay $415 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that they conspired to suppress salary levels by secretly agreeing not to hire one another’s employees.

Last year Google faced an unprecedented walkout by thousands of its employees around the world who were protesting what they saw as the company’s lax treatment of sexual harassment claims.

The positive side of this is that it inspired a new form of activism among tech workers previously thought to be too individualistic to act collectively. Google employees have also been outspoken on other issues such as providing services to the repressive Chinese government.

If the evil is ever to be exorcised at Google, it will be done not by a corporate motto but by pressures brought to bear by federal regulators, state prosecutors and the company’s own workforce.

High Standards, Poor Behavior

It is amazing how much attention is being paid to the Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation just issued by 181 chief executives of large corporations under the auspices of the Business Roundtable. We are supposed to think it is a major breakthrough that big business is claiming to do more than maximize returns for shareholders.

In fact, Corporate America has long given lip service to the notion that it has an obligation to other stakeholders such as employees, communities and suppliers and that it needs to promote sustainability in its operations. The language of the Roundtable statement could have been taken from similar pronouncements that have been made by the vast majority of large companies under the rubric of corporate social responsibility or a similar phrase. The website of Exxon Mobil, for instance, contains a page on its Guiding Principles, which are said to include adherence to “high ethical standards.”

The question, of course, is whether these high-minded statements have any real meaning—whether they result in more responsible practices or are designed mainly to let corporate executives pretend to be moral exemplars.

The answer seems clear. If large corporations truly had a commitment to their employees, they would not engage in so many exploitative practices and fight so hard against unionization. If they truly cared about the environment, they would take more aggressive steps to reduce pollution and address the climate crisis. If they truly cared about ethical supply chains, they would stop sourcing from low-road producers.

Not only are most large corporations far from ethical leaders—in many cases they cannot bring themselves to adhere to their most basic responsibility: obeying the law and complying with regulations.  

For the past few years, I’ve spent most of my time documenting corporate lawlessness by building the Violation Tracker database, which now contains more than 360,000 examples of misconduct that have resulted in $470 billion in penalties since 2000.

I ran the names of the 181 companies whose CEOs signed the Roundtable statement through Violation Tracker and, not surprisingly, the results were eye-popping. The signatories and their subsidiaries together account for more than $197 billion in cumulative penalties, or more than 40 percent of the total penalties from tens of thousands of companies.

Twenty-one of the signatories have penalty totals of $1 billion or more, and three with $25 billion or more. At the top of the list is Bank of America, with more than $58 billion in penalties from 128 cases largely involving mortgage abuses and toxic securities. JPMorgan Chase comes in at $30 billion from similar cases. As a consequence of its role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and other disasters, BP ranks third with $27 billion in penalties.

The list continues with other big banks (Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, etc.), big utilities (American Electric Power, Duke Energy, etc.), big pharmaceutical manufacturers (Pfizer, Abbott Laboratories, etc.), other big oil companies (Marathon Petroleum, Exxon Mobil, etc.), and others such as Boeing and Walmart.

It is significant that two of the worst corporate miscreants of recent years, Wells Fargo and Volkswagen, are missing from the list of signatories. Perhaps they or the Roundtable realized that their inclusion would have detracted from the message.

Yet the track records of many of the other signatories are not much better. Large corporations that repeatedly break the rules concerning consumer protection, environmental protection, workplace protection, investor protection and every other kind of protection cannot profess that they are committed to serving the well-being of all their stakeholders. Until they change their behavior, their purported principles mean little.

Corporate Accountability from Within

It appears that no one working for the public relations giant Edelman balked in 2006 when the firm went all-out to help then-besieged Wal-Mart by setting up a war room to plan attacks against the retailer’s critics and creating bogus front groups to create the illusion that the company had widespread public support. Nor apparently did Edelman staffers have any problem over the years when the firm took on clients such as tobacco companies, military contractors, the petroleum industry and the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Times are changing in the corporate p.r. business. The New York Times just reported that a staff revolt forced Edelman to abandon a plan to work for the private prison company GEO Group and improve its image in the face of criticism of its role in operating immigrant detention centers for the Trump Administration.

The Edelman situation is not unique. The Times noted that the marketing and p.r. firm Ogilvy has been facing staff unrest over its work for Customs and Border Protection, and employees at Deloitte and McKinsey tried to get their firms to end contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Pressure on management over work for these agencies has also been reported at tech companies such as Microsoft and Amazon as well as the online furniture retailer Wayfair.

Employees at large corporations are making their feelings known about other issues as well. Staffers at Amazon have pressed the company to do more to address the climate crisis. Perhaps the most dramatic move came last November when thousands of Google employees around the world walked off the job to protest the company’s handling of sexual harassment complaints.

These actions have come at a time when the conventional wisdom is that collective action by workers is a largely thing of the past. It is true that unions continue to struggle, as shown, for example, by the recent defeat of another organizing drive at Volkswagen’s operations in Tennessee in the face of intense opposition from management as well as public officials.

Yet what the actions at Edelman and the tech companies show is that workers – including some who may be very well paid – are finding different ways to express their dissatisfaction.

What’s particularly powerful is when employees launch campaigns that combine self-interest with altruistic goals. That’s what happened at Google, where the aim was both to change practices within the company and to support the wider MeToo Movement.

It’s also what gave such potency to the wave of teachers’ strikes that began in early 2018. Those walkouts were prompted both by the urgent need to raise salaries and the need to improve school funding to address overcrowding and other problems affecting students.

The willingness of employees to take on issues such as migrant abuse can also serve to expose the shallowness of much of what goes under the banner of corporate social responsibility. Edelman, for instance, claims that it is committed to being a “force for good.”

That somehow got forgotten when its managers initially agreed to work for GEO Group. It took a bold stance by the staff to overcome the hypocrisy.

Challenging Corporate Investment in Anti-Abortion States

For the past three decades, labor activists have watched with frustration as foreign automakers concentrated their U.S. investments in states hostile to labor unions and worker rights. The problem continues today as Volkswagen is reported to be colluding with state officials in Tennessee to thwart a new United Auto Workers organizing drive.

Now reproductive rights activists are facing a similar challenge: what to do about large corporations doing business in states that are taking aggressive action to restrict women’s right to choose.

There are already moves by some media companies to address the issue by saying they will reconsider working in Georgia, a favorite location for film and television production because of its generous tax credits. In recent days, companies such as Netflix, Walt Disney and WarnerMedia have made statements saying they could shun the Peach State because of its new law that would effectively outlaw abortion.

While trying to appear bold, the companies are actually taking a weak position by saying they would act only if the law takes effect, ignoring the fact that Georgia and the other states are paving the way for a weakening of reproductive rights by the U.S. Supreme Court even if their laws are struck down before being implemented.

The media industry is not the only sector that is susceptible to pressure campaigns. Many large corporations have made substantial investments in the hardline anti-abortion states, often receiving sumptuous subsidy packages from state and local officials. Here are examples from the Good Jobs First Subsidy Tracker:

Alabama: Toyota and Mazda got $900 million for an auto assembly plant. Amazon.com got $54 million for a fulfillment center. Google got $81 million for a data center.

Georgia: Kia got $410 million for an auto assembly plant. Baxter International got $211 million for a pharmaceutical production facility.

Kentucky: Amazon.com got $75 million for a distribution facility. Toyota got $146 million for an auto assembly plant expansion.

Louisiana: IBM got $152 million for a technology center. ExxonMobil got $118 million for a refinery upgrade.

Mississippi: Continental Tire got $595 million for a manufacturing facility. Toyota got $354 million for an assembly plant.

Missouri: Amazon.com got $78 million for a fulfillment center. Boeing got $229 million to expand its operations in the state.

Ohio: Amazon.com got $93 million for a data center. General Electric got $98 million for a global operations center.

It may be unrealistic to expect that corporations will abandon facilities in the anti-abortion states, but they may face pressure to avoid future investments in those places.  

The big subsidy packages that may be offered by those states to lure the investments could also come to be seen in a very different light – the same way that gifts from the opioid-tainted Sackler family to major cultural institutions are now treated as toxic.

Not long ago, we saw how economic pressure on states helped to undermine opposition to gay marriage. We will now see whether similar pressure, exercised by targeting big business investment, can also help defeat the attack on reproductive rights.

Shattering Myths About Business and Society

Those who believe that corporate executives are virtuous, government regulators are overreaching, and that we live in a meritocracy have been cringing every time they listened to a newscast in recent days. That’s because two major stories have been shattering myths about the way things work in the U.S. business world and the broader society.

The controversy over whether Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft should be grounded in the wake of a deadly crash in Ethiopia revealed the true nature of business regulation in the United States. Contrary to the image, depicted ad nauseum by corporate apologists, of bureaucrats crippling companies with unnecessary and arbitrary rules, we saw in the Federal Aviation Administration an agency that is essentially held captive by airlines and aircraft manufacturers.

It was only after the rest of the world ignored assurances from Boeing and took the common-sense step of grounding the planes that the FAA finally acted. The agency, its parent Department of Transportation and the Trump Administration had to be shamed into fulfilling their responsibility of protecting the public.

It remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration will temper its anti-regulatory rhetoric after this incident in which it was clear that the country needed more rather than less oversight. Unfortunately, the problem goes beyond rhetoric.

Since taking office, Trump has made it a crusade to dismantle much of the deregulatory system. Left to his own devices, Trump would continue on this path. His new budget proposes massive cuts in the budgets of regulatory agencies, including 31 percent at the EPA.

That budget was dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled House, but the administration is undermining agencies by rolling back enforcement activity. Public Citizen has been documenting this ploy in a series of reports drawing on data from Violation Tracker. Its latest study shows a 37 percent drop in enforcement actions by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission and the Consumer Product Safety Commission during Trump’s first two years, compared to the final two years of the Obama era.

The other big myth-busting story is the admissions scandal at elite universities. The revelation that wealthy parents have been paying large sums to a fixer who bribed coaches and used other fraudulent means to get their kids into the Ivy League should cause all critics of affirmative action to hang their heads in shame.

It speaks volumes that one of the parents arrested in the case is William McGlashan, founder of The Rise Fund, an ethical investing vehicle managed by the private equity firm TPG Capital. Working with the likes of Bono and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar, the fund says it is “committed to achieving social and environmental impact alongside competitive financial returns.”

Defenders of the fund will attempt to separate its mission from McGlashan’s personal issues. Yet the scandal helps puncture the image of moral superiority projected by those who claim they can do good and get richer at the same time. It gives more ammunition to those who suspect that ethical investing may be little more than a way to ease the conscience of the wealthy with more than their share of misdeeds.

Undoubtedly, protectors of the conventional wisdom are seeking ways to restore support for the notions that regulation is bad and that the rich are good people who earned everything they have. Yet for now, let’s enjoy these moments of clarity.

A Reputation for Purity is Now in Tatters

For the tens of millions of baby boomers in the United States, the first large corporation whose products they encountered was probably Johnson & Johnson. That’s because the vast majority of parents in the postwar period used the company’s baby shampoo, oil and powder on their precious bundles of joy. Carefully cultivating an image of purity, J&J established itself as an indispensable part of infant care.

That image is now in tatters. The company just disclosed that it is being investigated by the Justice Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Congress in connection with possible asbestos contamination of its baby powder and other talc-based products. These probes were prompted by investigative reporting in outlets such as the New York Times alleging that J&J executives raised internal concerns about the asbestos issue decades ago but the company never acknowledged these publicly.

These revelations gave more credence to thousands of lawsuits filed against J&J in recent years by women, including many who used the company’s baby powder on themselves as well as their infants, charging that the products caused them to develop ovarian cancer. J&J has been losing a lot of these cases, including one in which a jury awarded $4.7 billion in damages to a group of 22 women.

Rarely has a product’s reputation fallen so far, and rarely has a company once held in such high esteem come to be regarded as morally equivalent to cigarette manufacturers. Yet a closer look at J&J’s track record shows that its immaculate reputation has been deteriorating for quite some time.

Over the past decade the company has been involved in a series of scandals and has been forced it to pay out large sums in civil settlements and criminal fines.

The most serious of those cases involved allegations that several of its subsidiaries marketed prescription drugs for purposes not approved as safe by the Food and Drug Administration, thus creating potentially life-threatening risks for patients.

For example, in 2013 the Justice Department announced that J&J and several of its subsidiaries would pay more than $2.2 billion in criminal fines and civil settlements to resolve allegations that the company had marketed it anti-psychotic medication Risperdal and other drugs for unapproved uses as well as allegations that they had paid kickbacks to physicians and pharmacists to encourage off-label usage. The amount included $485 million in criminal fines and forfeiture and $1.72 billion in civil settlements with both the federal government and 45 states that had also sued the company.

Other J&J problems resulted from faulty production practices. During 2009 and 2010 the company had to announce around a dozen recalls of medications, contact lenses and hip implants. The most serious of these was the massive recall of liquid Tylenol and Motrin for infants and children after batches of the medication were found to be contaminated with metal particles.

The company’s handling of the matter was so poor that its subsidiary McNeil-PPC became the subject of a criminal investigation and later entered a guilty plea and paid a criminal fine of $20 million and forfeited $5 million.

J&J also faced criminal charges in an investigation of questionable foreign transactions. In 2011 it agreed to pay a $21.4 million criminal penalty as part of a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department resolving allegations of improper payments by J&J subsidiaries to government officials in Greece, Poland and Romania in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The settlement also covered kickbacks paid to the former government of Iraq under the United Nations Oil for Food Program.

All of this has been a humiliating comedown for a company that was once regarded as a model of corporate social responsibility and which set the standard for crisis management in its handling of the 1980s episode in which a madman laced packages of Tylenol with cyanide. While the company was then being victimized, in the subsequent crises it mainly has itself to blame. Off-label marketing, faulty production practices and foreign bribery are bad, but the current scandal over asbestos contamination and the alleged cover-up pose a threat to the survival of the company.