Archive for the ‘Corporate “Social Responsibility”’ Category

Can Corporate Tax Dodgers Be Socially Responsible?

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

In much the same way that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker reinvigorated organized labor, General Electric is reigniting the movement for tax justice. The revelation in a March 25 New York Times front-page story that GE arranged things so that it owes nothing to the Internal Revenue Service on its $5 billion in 2010 U.S. operating profits—in fact, it expects to claim a refund of $3.2 billion—has sparked a firestorm of protest.

GE, of course, is not the only high-profile corporate tax dodger. The new US Uncut campaign is also targeting Bank of America, Verizon and FedEx. Other offenders include Google and Amazon.

What tends to get overlooked in the furor over big business tax avoidance is that the companies involved are usually ones that profess to adhere to the principles of corporate social responsibility.

Take General Electric. Like many other large firms, GE tries hard to present itself as a good corporate “citizen.” It has a website dedicated to the subject, and its board of directors has a Public Responsibilities Committee. GE also publishes an annual Citizenship Report.

In the 44 pages of that report, taxes are mentioned only in passing—and then mainly to cite the total amount GE pays to governments worldwide. It uses a figure of $23 billion, but that is over the course of a decade, whereas the other numbers in the report tend to be annual ones. Nor does GE compare the number to the more than $160 billion it earned in profits during the ten years.

GE goes on at length about its commitment to “Community Building,” stating that “Governments and national institutions are vital to progress. The quality of public institutions is therefore crucial.” Yet when it comes to explaining what it does to support a strong public sector, the company changes the subject. It highlights its charitable contributions, its investments in “human capital” and its involvement in environmental and trade policy issues.

GE, like many other companies, is able to get away with this because issues such as fair taxation and tax compliance are largely absent from the discourse of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Given the lack of a standardized definition of what is and is not socially responsible, corporations can pick and choose. We thus end up with cases such as Wal-Mart, which maintains its Neanderthal labor practices while touting environmental initiatives as evidence of its high level of ethicality.

Selective business ethics is especially problematic when it comes to taxes. Business apologists say that corporations have a duty to their shareholders to minimize tax payments and that there is nothing wrong with using all legal means to do so. But how far does that go? The Times pointed out that GE’s tax department has a staff of 975 dedicated to finding every last trick, and the company spends millions each year lobbying for even more loopholes.

What about Wal-Mart’s use of a device known as a captive real estate investment trust to avoid billions of dollars in state income taxes by essentially paying rent to itself and then deducting the cost? And how about those companies that create paper subsidiaries in offshore tax havens? A 2010 study published in the journal Corporate Governance found that even companies that move their legal headquarters to such havens go on claiming to be socially responsible.

Another obstacle is that the governments that are victimized by business tax dodging often fail to take strong measures, thus reinforcing the idea that it is not a significant offense. In the United States, criminal tax prosecutions of large corporations are few and far between. In a rare instance last December, Deutsche Bank paid $553 million in fines and admitted to criminal wrongdoing for helping U.S. customers make use of fraudulent tax shelters. Deutsche Bank, of course, professes a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility.

One place where CSR-spouting corporate tax dodgers are starting to be challenged is Britain. Over the past few years, human rights groups such as Christian Aid have criticized tax avoidance and evasion by transnational corporate operations in developing countries, arguing that these practices keep those nations stuck in a poverty trap. More recently, the UK Uncut campaign (which inspired US Uncut) has targeted tax dodging in Britain itself by corporations such as the European cellphone giant Vodafone. Cyberactivists hacked into Vodafone’s CSR website to post messages about the firm’s dubious tax practices.

Actions such as these help cut through the corporate obfuscation and make it clear that the failure of a large company to comply with a shared responsibility such as taxes is socially irresponsible.

Putting Off Corporate Absolution

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

I was just beginning to recover from President Obama’s dismaying speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when I found myself in the middle of another effort to gloss over the misdeeds of big business. This occurred at the annual conference of the BlueGreen Alliance, which brought together some 1,600 labor and environmental activists to discuss the prospects for a sustainable economy but also invited representatives of some supposedly enlightened corporations.

When we gathered for lunch on the first day we first had to listen to a presentation by David Kiser, a vice president at International Paper, which is listed in the conference program as one of the “Platinum Sponsors” of the event. Kiser went on about IP’s commitment to “environmental stewardship” and “caring for employees.”

I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud. IP has one of the worst track records of any major corporation when it comes to both labor and environmental practices. Some of the earliest anti-corporate research I ever did was to assist a campaign launched by the Paperworkers union (now part of the Steelworkers, which co-founded the BlueGreen Alliance) to resist company demands for contract concessions in the 1980s.

After workers at an IP mill in Mobile, Alabama voted against the concessions, they were locked out by the company. The Mobile workers then made a coordinated bargaining pact with their counterparts at three other IP mills—in Jay, Maine, Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, and De Pere, Wisconsin—where contracts were expiring and the rank and file had decided to strike rather than concede.

IP responded by bringing in replacement workers from around the country, many of them recruited by BE&K, an Alabama-based construction company that had diversified into strikebreaking. The campaign by the striking and locked-out locals was eventually crushed by the company.

Yet during that campaign, workers at the mill in Jay, Maine (photo, from 1973) drew national attention to the environmental hazards of IP’s operations, which were a major contributor to the dioxin problem due to chlorine used in the paper bleaching process. The labor and environmental issues intersected in February 1988, when unskilled strikebreakers hired by the company accidentally broke the valve on a tank containing chlorine dioxide gas in pressurized liquid form. About 112,000 gallons of the liquid poured out and vaporized into a huge green cloud that floated out from the mill, forcing the evacuation of some 3,000 people from homes, schools and businesses. If the weather had been warmer and the winds weaker, many could have died.

Paperworker union members helped enact local ordinances in Jay that cracked down on IP’s emissions and pressured Maine state officials to file suit against the company for environmental violations. IP paid $885,000 to settle the charges. Later, the U.S. EPA also brought action against the company, which in 1991 pleaded guilty to five felony charges and paid a fine of $2.2 million. Over the following decade, IP was implicated in state and federal environmental violations in states such as New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Florida, California, Georgia and Virginia.

Since the early 2000s the company has been trying to rehabilitate its environmental image by actions such as donating land to conservation groups and appointing the head of one such group to its board of directors.  Yet the company remains a heavy polluter. In the EPA’s most recent Toxics Release Inventory, IP mills rank first and second among all paper facilities in the total volume of releases and account for 15 of the industry’s top 50 polluters, with total toxic releases of more than 43 million pounds.

IP’s labor relations are a lot less tumultuous these days, but in the last decade the company has slashed its U.S. hourly workforce from 45,000 down to 24,000.

The International Paper of 2011 is not the same as the IP of 1988, but I still find it difficult to regard the company as an ally in the effort to shape the green economy of the future. It takes a long time for the impact of past transgressions to dissipate.

This was brought home to me at another session at the BlueGreen Alliance conference. An official of the EPA was talking about how Recovery Act money is being used to help clean up a Superfund hazardous waste site in New Jersey where a long-defunct company had dumped large quantities of radioactive thorium once used in the production of gas lamps. Thorium, the EPA guy noted, has a half life of 14 billion years.

When the impact of business misbehavior can endure for eons, it will take more than a few social responsibility gestures to redeem corporate sinners.

IKEA Knocks Down Labor Rights

Friday, December 17th, 2010

When my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First introduced the Subsidy Tracker database recently, our hope was that the information would be helpful to a wide range of campaigns for economic and social justice. I can now offer one particular use.

By plugging the name Swedwood into the search engine, one finds that the company received a $1 million cash grant under the Virginia Investment Partnership program in connection with its vow to invest $281 million and create 740 jobs. Actually, this grant was just part of a series of subsidies worth a total of $12 million that Swedwood received from the state (the data in Subsidy Tracker are not yet comprehensive).

Swedwood is significant because the company, a unit of the retail giant IKEA, is at the center of a controversy over its labor practices at a furniture plant in Danville, Virginia for which it received the $1 million subsidy. Employees of the facility, fed up with dangerous working conditions and discriminatory employment practices, have been trying to organize with the help of the Machinists union, which produced a report concluding that the Danville operation may be the most hazardous furniture plant in the country. Swedwood and its parent have responded to the organizing drive by harassing union organizers and firing union supporters.

The Machinists and the Building and Wood Workers International labor federation have launched a campaign to pressure IKEA and Swedwood to respect the rights of the Danville workers. Among other things, the campaign is asking supporters to send a holiday card to IKEA Chief Executive Mikael Ohlsson with instructions on how to build a fair collective bargaining relationship with the workers (allen wrench not included).

The unions might also want to make an issue of the fact that a company that was generously subsidized with taxpayer funds is now flouting labor laws.

The financial assistance IKEA got in Virginia is not the only time it has played the subsidy game. In places such as Tempe, Arizona and Frisco and Round Rock in Texas, the retailer has received millions of dollars in sales tax rebates and infrastructure assistance to help finance new stores. It is expected to receive up to $18 million in subsidies for the store it is building in Centennial, Colorado.

In fact, tax avoidance is at the center of IKEA’s entire corporate structure, a complex arrangement that puts nominal control in the hands of a Dutch private foundation but allows founder Ingvar Kamprad and his family to dominate the company and grow wealthier from it (according to Forbes, Kamprad is the 11th richest person in the world, with a net worth of $23 billion).

IKEA is a prime example of how companies that have reputations for being socially responsible somehow get away with exploiting the system of economic development subsidies and with being hostile to unions in the United States – while cooperating with them in countries (such as IKEA’s native Sweden) where they are well established and protected. In the past, IKEA has relied on paternalism – including better than average employee benefits – to discourage unionization at its U.S. operations. The events in Danville suggest a troubling turn toward heavy-handed union busting.

Perhaps this will begin to change the view of corporate social responsibility arbiters such as Ethisphere magazine, which lists IKEA as “one of the world’s most ethical companies.” While the idea of corporate ethics is an oxymoron, companies should not be singled out for praise of any kind if they deny the rights of their workers to organize.

Note: The Dirt Diggers Digest index of information sources featured or utilized in the blog has finally been brought up to date.

European Companies Behaving Badly

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

Many American workers are irate these days about the jobs that are supposedly being taken away from them by undocumented foreign laborers. A new report from Human Rights Watch shows that the real threat to our living standards may come not from Mexican farmworkers, chambermaids or carwashers but from another group of “illegal” immigrants: European transnational corporations investing in the United States.

These companies – which include the likes of T-Mobile parent Deutsche Telekom, DHL Express parent Deutsche Post, French construction materials giant Saint-Gobain and Britain’s Wal-Mart rival Tesco – are illegal in the sense that they fail to comply with international labor norms when it comes to their U.S. operations.

Human Rights Watch, usually preoccupied with the mistreatment of dissidents and others in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal and Kyrgyzstan, has not hesitated to point out that when it comes to the workplace, the United States is far from a paradigm of respect for individual rights. In 2000 it published a report called Unfair Advantage, which showed how workers’ freedom of association is routinely violated by employers.

Its new report, titled A Strange Case, shows how this pattern of abuse is practiced not only by domestic companies used to a climate of lax labor enforcement, but also by European companies that have much friendlier relations with unions in their home countries and that claim to abide by the principles regarding labor rights included in the declarations and conventions of the International Labor Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and other global bodies.

Noting that these companies “exploit the loopholes and shortcomings in U.S. labor law” to engage in union avoidance and unionbusting practices, the report states: “The European Dr. Jekyll becomes an American Mr. Hyde.” Another way of putting it is that these companies behave like proper Westerners who indulge in sex with children when traveling to Southeast Asia: they are willing to do things abroad that they would never consider at home.

The Human Rights Watch report documents intimidation tactics used, for example, by T-Mobile in response to an organizing drive led by the Communications Workers of America and by DHL Express in response to a drive launched by the American Postal Workers Union. It also shows how European companies have tried to remove unions already organized, such as the decertification effort by Saint-Gobain against the United Auto Workers at a plant in Massachusetts.  Other case studies show how companies such as Norway’s Kongsberg Automotive use tactics such as the lockout of union workers during contract negotiations that, as the report puts it, are “unheard of in Europe.”

The report points out that these European companies exploiting the lax U.S. labor rights environment are invariably ones that profess to be practitioners of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and that claim to have policies of cooperating with worker organizations throughout their operations. This, along with the fact that environmental criminals such as BP can claim to be CSR advocates, shows that the organizations that rate firms on corporate responsibility have to do a lot more than take company statements at face value.

Although the Human Rights Watch report doesn’t address it, another factor in the ability of European companies to behave badly in the United States is the unwillingness of the unions in their home countries to take aggressive action on this issue. Some of those unions have spoken out forcefully in support of their beleaguered American cousins, but that has not been enough to stop the abuses.

Yet the central problem is not CSR hypocrisy or inadequate labor solidarity, but rather the dismal condition of labor law in the United States. It would be nice if European companies decided on their own accord to treat American workers as they do employees at home, but even better would be if the federal government compelled both foreign and domestic companies to respect the collective bargaining rights of all U.S. workers.

Villainous Visionaries

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

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.

The New Petro-Villain

Friday, July 30th, 2010

The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is 100 days old, and now another company is competing for the spotlight as a major petro-villain.

The upstart is Enbridge Energy Partners L.P. — a U.S.-based subsidiary of the Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. — which is responsible for the recent accident in Michigan that has filled the Kalamazoo River with some 800,000 gallons of oil and shown that crude does not need to be offshore to cause serious environmental damage. The incident occurred only months after the company was warned that it was not properly monitoring corrosion.

Enbridge is no stranger to controversy, both because of its own performance problems, including a series of earlier spills, and its role in facilitating the distribution of oil produced in environmentally destructive situations such as the Alberta tar sands. This dubious track record is worth a closer look.

  • In January 2001 a seam failure on a pipeline near Enbridge’s Hardisty Terminal in Alberta spilled more than 1 million gallons of oil.
  • In July 2002 a 34-inch-diameter pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners ruptured in northern Minnesota, contaminating five acres of wetland with about 250,000 gallons of crude oil.
  • In January 2003 about 189,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Nemadji River from the Enbridge Energy Terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. Fortunately, the river was frozen at the time, so damage was limited.
  • In 2004 the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) proposed a fine of $11,500 against Enbridge Energy for safety violations found during inspections of pipelines in Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. The penalty was later reduced to $5,000. In a parallel case involving Enbridge Pipelines operations in Minnesota, an initial penalty of $30,000 was revised to $25,000.
  • In January 2007 an Enbridge pipeline in Wisconsin spilled more than 50,000 gallons of crude oil onto a farmer’s field in Clark County. The following month another Enbridge spill in Wisconsin released 176,000 gallons of crude in Rusk County.
  • In November 2007 two workers were killed in an explosion that occurred at an Enbridge pipeline in Clearbrook, Minnesota. The PHMSA proposed a fine of $2.4 million for safety violations connected to the incident, but the case has not been resolved.
  • In 2008 the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources charged Enbridge Energy with more than 100 environmental violations relating to the construction of a 320-mile pipeline across much of the state. The agency said that Enbridge workers illegally cleared and disrupted wooded wetlands and were responsible for other actions that resulted in discharging sediment into waterways. In January 2009 the company settled the charges by agreeing to pay $1.1 million in penalties.
  • In 2009 the PHMSA fined Enbridge Pipelines LLC-North Dakota $105,000 for a 2007 accident that released more than 9,000 gallons of crude oil.
  • In March 2010 the PHMSA proposed a fine of $28,800 against Enbridge Pipelines LLC for safety violations in Oklahoma; the case is not yet resolved.

Apart from its safety record, Enbridge is targeted by environmentalists for its role in transporting crude oil from the controversial tar sand operations of northeastern Alberta, which are regarded as one of the largest contributors to global warming as well as a major source of air and water pollution and forest destruction. Enbridge’s predecessor companies had some involvement in the tar sands as early as the 1970s. That role expanded greatly in the late 1990s, when Enbridge completed construction of an $800 million expansion of its pipeline system to bring tar sands oil to Eastern Canada and the U.S. Midwest. The pipeline initially served Suncor Energy, a spinoff of U.S.-based Sunoco that is now Canada’s largest petroleum company.

In recent years Enbridge has spent billions of dollars to expand its oil pipeline capacity, much of it dedicated to the tar sands industry. Enbridge is set to provide another boon to the tar sands producers with the opening later this year of its Alberta Clipper pipeline, which will carry more of the dirty crude to Superior, Wisconsin. It is also proceeding with its Northern Gateway Project, which involves the construction of parallel pipelines from the tar sands region to the western shore of British Columbia. Enbridge is partnering with PetroChina on that project.

Enbridge is also headed for more controversy in light of its announcement in March 2010 that it would develop a natural gas pipeline serving areas of Pennsylvania and nearby states where Marcellus Shale drilling is taking place. Those drilling activities have been the subject of numerous reports of drinking water contamination.

Like BP, Enbridge depicts itself as a strong proponent of corporate social responsibility. Also like BP, Enbridge illustrates how those noble sentiments are meaningless in the face of repeated acts of negligence and recklessness.

Punishments that Fit BP’s Crimes

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Few things enrage the American public more than hearing about a criminal who is given a light sentence and then commits another offense. This scenario is not limited to murderers and rapists. Corporations can also be recidivists.

We’re currently contending with such a culprit in the (corporate) person of BP. The oil giant’s apparent negligence in connection with the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico comes on the heels of two previous major accidents in which the company was found culpable: a 2005 explosion at a refinery in Texas that killed 15 workers and a 2006 series of oil spills at its operations in the Alaskan tundra.

Those earlier cases are not just another blot on BP’s blemished track record. In both instances the company was compelled to plead guilty to a criminal charge and not only heavily fined but also put on probation for three years. On a single day in October 2007, the U.S. Justice Department announced these plea agreements along with the resolution of another criminal case in which BP was charged with manipulation of the market for propane. In the latter case, prosecution of BP was deferred on the condition that the company pay penalties of more than $300 million and be subjected to an independent monitor for three years.

In other words, at the time that BP engaged in behavior that contributed to the Gulf catastrophe, it was under the supervision of federal authorities for three different reasons. Although the terms of the probation and independent monitor agreements refer to the parts of BP’s business involved in the offenses, federal law (18 USC Section 3563) requires that “a defendant not commit another Federal, State, or local crime during the term of probation.”

Given the distinct possibility that BP will face new criminal charges, the question arises: what would be a suitable punishment? When an individual violates his or her probation by committing a new offense, the usual result is imprisonment. Federal sentencing guidelines say that when an organizational defendant commits such a violation, the remedy is to extend the period of the probation.

That hardly seems adequate in the case of an egregious repeat offender such as BP. Just as an individual loses certain rights when imprisoned, so should a corporate probation violator face serious consequences. Here are some possibilities:

  • Ineligibility for federal contracts. BP is among the top 30 federal contractors. That privilege should be suspended.
  • Ineligibility for federal drilling leases. BP has shown itself to be reckless when it comes to drilling. It should no longer be able to obtain leases to drill on public lands or in public waters.
  • Ineligibility for federal tax incentives. Like other oil companies, BP receives a variety of special tax advantages such as writeoffs of intangible drilling costs. It should be denied such benefits.
  • Suspension of the right to lobby. According to the Open Secrets database, BP spent nearly $16 million last year on federal lobbying. As a probation violator, it should be barred from trying to influence public policy.
  • Moratorium on image-burnishing advertisements. As the Gulf debacle continues, BP is spending heavily on advertising to convey the message that it is doing everything in its power to address the problem. Once it is designated a probation violator, it should be barred from that sort of crisis marketing.
  • Public admission of fault. At the point that BP pleads guilty to another criminal offense, an appropriate penalty might be to force it to take the money now being spent to repair its image and use it to run ads admitting its misbehavior. Nothing would be more satisfying than hearing BP admit that its purported devotion to corporate social responsibility has been a sham.

No doubt there are legal barriers to such measures, but we need to go beyond the current wrist-slapping approach to the punishment of corporate crime and create deterrents that once and for all get the likes of BP to take safety and environmental regulations seriously.

Corporate Social Irresponsibility

Friday, May 14th, 2010

The catastrophic Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 gave rise to the modern corporate social responsibility movement; the current spill in the Gulf of Mexico marks its collapse.

The past two decades have been an experiment in corporate behavior modification. An array of well-intentioned organizations such as CERES promoted the idea that large companies could be made to do the right thing by getting them to sign voluntary codes of conduct and adopt other seemingly enlightened policies on environmental and social issues.

At first there was resistance, but big business soon realized the advantages of projecting an ethical image: So much so that corporate social responsibility (known widely as CSR) is now used as a selling point by many firms. Chevron, for example, has an ad campaign with the tagline “Will You Join Us” that is apparently meant to convey the idea that the oil giant is in the vanguard of efforts to save the earth.

What also made CSR appealing to corporations was the recognition that it could serve as a buffer against aggressive regulation. While CSR proponents in the non-profit sector were usually not pursuing a deregulatory agenda, the image of companies’ agreeing to act virtuously conveyed the message that strong government intervention was unnecessary. CSR thus dovetails with the efforts of corporations and their allies to undermine formal oversight of business activities. This is what General Electric was up to when it ran its Ecoimagination ads while lobbying to weaken air pollution rules governing the locomotives it makes.

Recent events put into question the meaning of a commitment to CSR. The company at the center of the Gulf oil disaster, BP, has long promoted itself as being socially responsible. A decade ago it adopted a sunburst logo, acknowledged that global warming was a problem and claimed to be going “beyond petroleum” by investing (modestly) in renewable energy sources.  What did all that social responsibility mean if the company could still, as the emerging evidence suggests, cut corners on safety in one of its riskiest activities—deepwater drilling? And how responsible is it for BP to join with rig owner Transocean and contractor Halliburton in pointing fingers at one another in an apparent attempt to diffuse liability?

BP is hardly unique in violating its self-professed “high standards.” This year has also seen the moral implosion of Toyota, another darling of the CSR world. It was only months after the Prius producer was chosen for Ethisphere’s list of “the world’s most ethical companies” that it came to light that Toyota had failed to notify regulators or the public about its defective gas pedals.

Goldman Sachs, widely despised these days for unscrupulous behavior during the financial meltdown, was a CSR pioneer in the investment banking world. In 2005 it was the first Wall Street firm to adopt a comprehensive environmental policy (after being pressured by groups such as Rainforest Action Network), and it established a think tank called the Center for Environmental Markets.

Even Massey Energy, which has remained defiant in the face of charges that a preoccupation with profit over safety led to the deaths of 29 coal miners in a recent explosion, publishes an annual CSR report.

When the members of a corporate rogues’ gallery such as this all profess to be practitioners of CSR, the concept loses much of its legitimacy. The best that can be said is that these companies may behave well in some respects while screwing up royally in others—the way that Wal-Mart is supposedly in the forefront of environmental reform while retaining its Neanderthal labor relations policies. Selective ethics, however, should be no more tolerable for corporations than it is for people.

Heaven forbid that we violate the free speech rights of CSR hypocrites, but there should be some mechanism—perhaps truth-in-image-advertising laws—to curb the ability of corporations to go on deceiving the public.

Toyota Totals Its Corporate Social Responsibility Creds

Friday, February 5th, 2010

It would not surprise me if the people who do public relations for Toyota are flipping through their old scrapbooks to cheer themselves up amid the worst crisis in the company’s history.

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.

Haiti: Corporate Charity or Reparations?

Friday, January 22nd, 2010

After the New Orleans region was struck by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Wal-Mart scored a public relations coup by delivering emergency supplies quickly while government agencies stumbled. Ignoring the fact that the company’s vast distribution network made the feat relatively easy, awestruck journalists hailed the giant retailer as a “savior” for many of the storm’s victims.

The Behemoth of Bentonville has apparently not been performing any major logistics miracles for the people of Haiti in the wake of the recent devastating earthquake. The company is working mainly through the Red Cross, initially providing $500,000 in cash and food kits worth $100,000.

Although the company’s outlays have apparently increased a bit since its January 13 press release, the amount is still in the neighborhood of $1 million. To put that number in perspective, in 2008 Wal-Mart had profits of $22 billion, which works out to some $2.5 million an hour—every day of the year.

It is hard to be impressed at a commitment of 30 minutes worth of profits to help deal with a disaster of the magnitude facing Haiti. But this is not just an abstract issue of generosity.

Over the years, Wal-Mart has earned huge sums from the impoverished nation. Haiti is one of the low-wage countries where garment contractors have produced the goods that, despite Wal-Mart’s vaunted low prices, can be profitability sold in its network of Supercenters. It’s been going on for many years. A 1996 report on Haiti by the National Labor Committee noted that Wal-Mart was a major customer of sweatshops paying garment workers as little as 12 cents an hour.

In this time of dire need, Wal-Mart should feel pressure to make a commitment to the Haitian people of a magnitude comparable to the wealth it has extracted from the country over the years.

The question of the obligation of a company such as Wal-Mart to a situation such as Haiti is particularly relevant in light of the outrageous ruling by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. Thanks to the High Court’s corporate shills, Wal-Mart executives are probably already fantasizing about the unlimited slush funds they will have to sway elections and pressure incumbents to do their bidding.

Now is a good time to launch a movement to push corporations to do something with their money other than buying the political system. The outpouring of support for Haiti could be the springboard for a campaign that demands that Wal-Mart—and other major corporations that have benefited from the country’s cheap labor—provide not a bit of charity but rather a substantial amount in the form of reparations.

Perhaps the way to start is to call for disclosure of an estimate of how much value Wal-Mart has extracted from the Haitian people. Rather than letting the company brag about its pittance of a voluntary contribution, it would be much more satisfying to see it have to negotiate an amount that would make a real difference for the country.