If you visit the website of any big Western corporation, there is often a prominent section on ‘corporate social responsibility’, or their ‘sustainability plan’, or ‘Mega-Corp X in the local community’; or a combination of these. Clicking on these links will normally whisk you off to a sleek, eye-catching page that any budding graphic-design student could only dream of. Pictures of smiling kids abound, a panoramic shot of a verdant idyll might be thrown in here or there, a few stock pictures of solar panels might grace the side and a shot of a beaming small-holder farmer is a must for any food-related corporation; the message is clear: whatever the public cares about, so do the big multinational corporations!
The notion of corporations being a force for good is of course not constrained to parts of their public web pages; advertisements are no longer solely the emotionally manipulative messages that have saturated Western culture for decades, many are now designed to convince the public that corporations aren’t just about selling products and satisfying the private interests which control them, they also want to help solve issues such as the global environmental crisis, social problems such as food poverty, sustainability, the list goes on. These adverts often convey incredibly spurious messages about the advertiser’s corporate principles. A few days ago I had to sit through a nauseating YouTube advert for a certain consumer-goods giant which was indirectly equating its values to those of Ghandi and Martin Luther King.
Although the concept of ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ has been in use since the 60s, only recently has it become such a conspicuous part of corporate business plans, in part due to increasing public awareness about global issues already alluded to. There’s good reason for investment into trying to look like they care; in a study by the Reputation Institute, 73% of the consumers surveyed said that they were willing to recommend companies perceived to be delivering on Corporate Social Responsibility. However, barring a few rare exceptions, when you scratch below the surface of Corporate Social Responsibility programmes they all too often turn out to be nothing more than superficial marketing exercises. A major sportswear manufacturer might support a kid’s football charity in a developing country whilst simultaneously exploiting sweatshop labour across South East Asia, for example.
Corporations are just not structurally able to be the pioneers of any sort of environmental or social movement; they are legally compelled to maximise shareholder value and this will always be their bottom line, they are not programmed to provide public goods, or solve public problems. When it comes to issues such as over-consumption, rising inequality or the corruption of democracy, corporations should be seen as part of the problem, not part of the solution. The author Joel Bakan sums it up succinctly: “It is all so powerfully seductive: the idea of the good corporation… but think for just a moment about Walmart and Nike… while trumpeting sustainability both companies continue aggressively to promote the expansion and growth of consumer markets; they’re conveying the message that sustainability is perfectly consistent with spiralling consumerism and rising corporate power.”
The existential threat posed by climate change means that the incipient big-brand hijacking of environmental movements is a particularly insidious development and one that environmentalists across the world should see as a key priority to fight against- although all progressive movements should be cynical about the involvement of corporate power, the environmental movement has particular reason to worry. The only chance we have to avert a global ecological tragedy is to fundamentally change our global economic system away from one of ever-increasing consumption, we must not fall under the illusion that corporations can be the arbiters of this paradigm shift; did you ever hear about the wolf in sheep’s clothing?