We hope you enjoyed watching the Oscars yesterday. And depending on what country and station you saw them in, we hope you were not driven quite as crazy as we were by the subjection to endless commercial breaks every two minutes (What do all these ads about skin care products tell us about the viewers of the show, btw.?). Anyway, good to see that two of the films we talked about last week actually made it: Tilda Swinton for best supporting actress in ‘Michael Clayton’ and Daniel Day-Lewis for best actor in ‘There Will Be Blood’ (which got another one for something we forgot…).
Meanwhile, in a similar vein, the Corporate Responsibility Officer (CRO) organization in New York recently came up with their very own list of ‘Oscars’. It’s awarding the most responsible companies in the US, the ‘100 Best Corporate Citizens’. In its ninth year by now, the list ranks the biggest US companies according to a wide set of criteria, such as climate change, environment, human rights etc.
It’s is an interesting read in many ways. First of all, for who is on it. Intel Corp. is No 1 – fair enough, they do all these neat and clean electronic gadgets - fine. Or John Deere (No 4), they produce all these nice green tractors, so why not. Nike is third – not bad for a company which is meanwhile staple food in business ethics classes with their struggle on working conditions in their plants in Asia. But, gosh, look further down the list and there is Dow Chemical (13)! No mention of Dow’s haphazard approach to assume responsiblity for Bhopal victims after taking over Union Carbide (which was responsible for the disaster). And go to 39th position: lo and behold, Lockheed Martin (39)! Obviously producing weapons of mass destruction is a very socially responsible business proposition. Gas guzzler manufacturers are on there (Ford, General Motors), as are Monsanto and Coca Cola, again, usual suspects in most business ethics courses.
But don’t lest rush to conclusions. This is not just a ‘greenwash’ list. CRO also has a ‘Penalty Box’, where companies end up which for some ethical infractions were not included in the ranking: ExxonMobil for Oil Spills in their Brooklyn factories, Mattel for the scandals with Chinese suppliers or Hewlett-Packard for the handling of their board room leaks. That is interesting: as we understand CRO’s rationale – its not a problem if you are a sinner, as long as you repent and mend your ways! CRO, for instance, explains why they kept GAP on the list: despite the scandal around their suppliers’ working conditions in India last fall, the company reacted swiftly, transparent and consequently implemented their standards and values to fix the problem.
Whatever we may think of individual companies on the list, we like it for making obvious one important thing: the world of business ethics is no black and white film, where angels and devils are easily separated. Business reflects broader societal imperatives: at times, a majority of Americans approved of Bush’s Iraq adventure – hence there has to be someone to produce the weapons for this. SUVs are a huge market – so companies supplying them are just one villain – among others - in the game. And so on. To make it on the list then basically means that a companies attempts at going about their business with some basic concern for key ethical issues. That’s fair enough, certainly it’s a start.
In this sense the list is in fact selective: only three companies have been on the list for all nine years of its existence, namely Starbucks, Intel and Cisco. We have commented on the latter company with regard to their role in China, selling censorship technology to the Chinese government. And Starbuck’s is on the agenda of many activist and NGOs as well.
So what do we make of the ‘100 Best Corporate Citizens’ list? Our stance would be that CRO, as an organization of managers responsible for ethical issues in the corporate sector, has a specific angle on the subject. From this perspective, their list could probably be better dubbed as the ‘100 Lesser Evils’ – which lists companies with still a lot of work to do but who at least are conscious of their responsibility and are demonstrating some effort to live up to ethical and societal standards. And that’s a good thing – compared to some of the alternatives at least …