Portfolio, the Condé Nast business magazine that debuted last year, started out looking as if it would be little more than a glossy celebration of the corporate world’s movers and shakers. It has, however, shown a willingness at times to address the seamier side of capitalism, such an October 2007 story on links between Chiquita Brands and death squads in Colombia.
The new (March) issue of the publication has another article that shows business at its worst. “The Toxic Ten” by Harry Hurt III is a welcome antidote to the endless stories published these days about the ways in which big business has supposedly gotten religion about the environment. Hurt shows that there are still large companies that are dumping toxic substances in rivers, spewing mercury out of power plants, using harmful materials in their products and contributing mightily to global warming. His list is not meant to be a ranking but instead an assortment of companies that “could be doing better, given their resources and position in their industry.”
The “Toxic Ten” consists of:
- J.R. Simplot (the potato king generates lots of waste products)
- Cargill (the $88 billion agribusiness giant contaminates air and water)
- Ford Motor (has dragged its feet on producing truly fuel-efficient vehicles)
- Boeing (has been evasive about its carbon footprint and has been involved in water pollution)
- Apple (uses toxins such as polyvinyl chloride and brominated flame retardants)
- Southern Co. (operates some of the dirtiest power plants in the country)
- American Electric Power (operates some of the other dirtiest power plants)
- Massey Energy (mines coal via mountaintop removal)
- Chevron (is involved in more than 90 active Superfund sites)
- Alcoa (operates power plants for its smelters that are heavy polluters)
The list could have gone on much longer. To begin with, how did Exxon Mobil not make the cut? Most of the top air polluters on a list assembled by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts are also missing. In fact, several of the companies on the Institute’s list—including DuPont and General Electric—appear (along with the likes of Wal-Mart) in a sidebar to Hurt’s article called “The Green 11: Some of America’s Most Eco-Savvy Corporations.”
If by “eco-savvy” Portfolio means those companies that have been most successful in giving the appearance of environmental responsibility, then those slick purveyors of greenwashing do indeed deserve to be singled out.
The New York Times gave a boost today to Wal-Mart’s effort to raise its coolness quotient. Its account of a new blog that the giant retailer is allowing some of its merchandise buyers to produce was filled with references to “candor,” “speak[ing] frankly,” and “uncensored rambling.” Much is made of the fact that the posters have made unflattering comments about some of the offerings of Wal-Mart’s suppliers. Wal-Mart is said to have learned its lesson from earlier disasters with blogs created in the name of bogus front groups. This new initiative, the Times assures us, is the real thing.
It is indeed the case that the site allows reader comments that are critical of certain company practices. For example, a posting by an “associate” named Alex saying he might use spend his federal economic stimulus check to purchase a TV or a laptop was followed by comments on how that would do more to help the foreign economies where such products are made. One person asked: “what happened to the campaign WalMart used to run advertising its committment to support American manufacturers?”
Yet, it appears that the Times was hoodwinked by Wal-Mart. The appearance of authenticity and candor is just another technique used by advertising agencies and public relations consultants to win over skeptical audiences.
As for those critical comments, it’s significant that “Alex” thanked all those who had corrected a spelling error in his post but had nothing to say about the company’s sourcing practices. In fact, that the only real topic covered in the posts apart from product assessments is “sustainability.”
Those items are posted in the name of Rand Waddoups, who is no lowly buyer but rather the company’s senior director of business strategy and sustainability. His part of the blog, at least, fits in neatly with the company’s dubious campaign to depict itself as the environmental leader of the corporate world.
As I have previously noted, Wal-Mart’s green crusade places all the burdens on its suppliers, while the moves taken by the retailer itself (improving energy efficiency, etc.) are in fact nothing more than cost-cutting measures that boost its bottom line. Until Wal-Mart makes some hard choices itself—such as paying all its workers a living wage—nothing it does in the blogosphere or elsewhere is going to be very authentic.
The Center for Media and Democracy recently joined with Consumer Reports WebWatch to create a new site called Full Frontal Scrutiny, which “seeks to shine a light on front groups—organizations that state a particular agenda, while hiding or obscuring their identity, membership or sponsorship, or all three.”
Full Frontal Scrutiny is an extension of the work that the Center has long been doing to expose corporate manipulation of public opinion. That work has been widely disseminated through the PR Watch journal and website as well as the Sourcewatch wiki.
Consumer Reports WebWatch, which calls itself “the internet integrity division” of the venerable watchdog group Consumers Union, says its mission is to “provide unbiased and practical research on Web site publishing and business practices; help devise guidelines for credibility; expose practices that are a cause for consumer concern; and recognize good practices.”
In its initial posts, Full Frontal Scrutiny has dealt with perennial opinion manipulators such as Big Pharma, the tobacco industry and “clean” coal producers.
Given all the extravagant environment claims being made by major corporations these days, it is strangely refreshing when a business chieftain puts aside the greenwash and speaks his Neanderthal mind. That was the case recently, when General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz told a closed-door session with journalists that he considered global warming “a total crock of shit.” He also reportedly stated that hybrid automobiles “make no economic sense.”
When word of his candor got out, Lutz did a bit of a mea culpa on GM’s FastLane company blog. Yet his argument was bizarre: “My beliefs are mine and I have a right to them, just as you have a right to yours…My thoughts on what has or hasn’t been the cause of climate change have nothing to do with the decisions I make to advance the cause of General Motors. My opinions on the subject—like anyone’s—are immaterial.”
I’m not sure whether we should be relieved that Lutz apparently doesn’t let his retrograde thoughts get in the way of his job—or dismayed that GM is paying more than $8 million a year to someone who leaves his brain at home.
Corporate ideological inconsistency is not limited to GM’s executive suite. A recent survey of top executives published by the Boston Center for Corporate Citizenship and the Hitachi Foundation demonstrates the opposite problem from Lutz: embracing noble ideals but doing nothing to implement them. Nearly three-quarters of the respondents said that good “corporate citizenship” should be a priority for business, but only 39 percent said such considerations are part of their planning process.
An article distributed by Social Funds quoted the lead researcher for the survey as saying: “We think the gap between aspirations and actions is to be expected at this time because business is going through a significant transformation.” Or, to put it another way: Many corporate leaders apparently think that living up to their rhetoric is a crock.
The Dirt Diggers Digest will comment on corporate misbehavior and report on information sources for those researching that misbehavior. Coming soon.