Friday, March 29, 2013

"How does one use film to describe a woman who thinks?"

This, in her own words, was one of director Margarethe von Trotta’s main challenge when shooting her 2012 movie ‘Hannah Arendt’, which will be released in North America this spring. Arendt, a German-Jewish intellectual who narrowly escaped concentration camp and survived the war in New York, became most famous in the early 1960s with her coverage of the Eichmann trials in Jerusalem for The New Yorker. It is on this period of her life that the movie mostly zooms in.

The movie is mostly about what Hannah Arendt - as a person, lover, intellectual, friend, woman - went through while engaging with and covering the Eichmann trial. The film is a fantastically entertaining, at times even nail-biting-tense piece of cinema. Von Trotta has turned what in terms of plot could be a rather boring and uneventful story into a veritable thriller. Hence her quote above, which summarizes the challenge.

We have commented earlier on this blog on some of Arendt’s intellectual heritage, and the movie remarkably manages to capture some of that. The reason though why it is a highly recommendable watch has to do with the fact that it allows an insight into the life, struggles, calamities and temptations of a true intellectual as Hannah Arendt was.

Arendt, a well regarded philosopher by the time she accepts the assignment from The New Yorker to go to Jerusalem to cover the Eichmann-trials, appears as a scholar which allows to be inspired, impressed, confused and disrupted by exposing herself to real life, to ongoing events. It is impressive to watch how Arendt stays clear of preconceived role-bound notions (as a German, as a Jew, as a woman etc.) which many contemporary commentators and many of her friends and peers brought to the analysis of the Eichmann case. She allows herself to be taken in and to create her very own perception of how the events, in particular the testimony by Eichmann himself, unfold.

And she comes to her very own conclusions. For her, Eichmann does not qualify for many of the attributes he was given at the time: a monster, an anti-Semite, an inherently evil person. On the contrary, in her final speech in the movie in defense of her conclusions she summarizes her perception:
The trouble with a Nazi criminal like Eichmann was that he insisted on renouncing all personal qualities, as if there was nobody left to be either punished or forgiven. He protested time and again, contrary to the Prosecution's assertions, that he had never done anything out of his own initiative, that he had no intentions whatsoever, good or bad, that he had only obeyed orders. This typical Nazi plea makes it clear that the greatest evil in the world is the evil committed by nobodies. Evil committed by men without motive, without convictions, without wicked hearts or demonic wills, by human beings who refuse to be persons. And it is this phenomenon that I have called the “banality of evil.“ (Emphasis added)
At the time, these ideas were new and in their implications very much contested, even incendiary. Hannah Arendt wrote her article and the subsequent book long before the work of the likes of Zygmunt Baumann gave those ideas a coherent philosophical home and legitimacy. She highlighted the effects of bureaucracy and imposed social super-structures on the de-personalisation of the individual long before we had the empirical ‘test’ of these effects in research such as the Stanford Prison Experiments.

To stick to your ideas despite resistance is the great virtue of Hannah Arendt in the movie. She loses friends, almost gets fired from her job, fends off death threats and overcomes other obstacles. At the same time, she is shown also as deeply human and frail. The movie takes us through the pains and agonies which can sometimes accompany the formation and expression of new ideas. The working style, the procrastination, the obsession with a mission, the apparently chaotic process of working – all these are showcased in a way that stays clear of many clich├ęs about intellectuals one normally encounters on screen.

This said, the movie is not without flaws. One of the most controversial points of Arendt, the alleged complicity of Jewish elites in the holocaust, is only insufficiently backed up and developed, which sort of sidetracks the narrative a little. This said though the movie is a must for anybody – women or men alike - interested in the process, challenges, pitfalls and highlights of the business of generating new ideas.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A sneak peek at the new edition of our CSR textbook

The new second edition of our textbook, Corporate Social Responsibility: Readings and Cases in a Global Context is due out a little later this year. Above is a first look at the cover, featuring a shot by Lucas Schifres of workers crimping stones on silver in a jewelry factory in Panyu, Guangzhou Province, China.

The photo is part of Schifres' Faces of Made in China series, which was featured on the New York Times "Lens" blog last year. The purpose of the series is to "consider the otherwise anonymous people who produce our essential possessions put a face to labor in China". Whilst most of the photos in the series are simple portraits of Chinese workers, the cover shot shows more of the context in which Chinese-made goods are manufactured.

Schifres didn't only photograph the workers but also interviewed them too. One of the more surprising things he found was, despite concerns from the West about the social responsibility issues evident in many Chinese factories (as exemplified by the Foxconn/Apple controversies of the last few years) they actually found a real sense of pride among workers. As the NYT blog reports Schifres saying, "The answer was always, ‘Oh, we’re very proud; we’re happy that the products go all around the world' ... ‘This is good for China; this is good for our generation.’” “They have absolutely no idea about controversies around the world about the Made in China products,” he said.

This for us captures one of the central questions in CSR - i.e. what exactly is responsible corporate behavior in a global context? Different parts of world have different rules, standards, and expectations concerning social responsibility, but global corporations have to traverse this variety in developing their programmes and need to ensure that their global supply chains meet acceptable standards for working conditions, environmental impacts and other social considerations.

These and many other issues are covered in the book. It's designed for Masters students and advanced undergraduates studying Corporate Social Responsibility courses. The new edition will feature all new cases  (on Vodafone, HSBC and Tata), many new readings, and fully updated editorial content from ourselves and our co-editor Laura Spence. It's also going to have a great new companion website with all sorts of materials for students and instructors. We'll provide more details soon. The book will be out in the summer.

The book is now published. See our post on this and the new free download of Chapter 1

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A sweet defeat?

Monday’s  news from New York puts the topic of corporate responsibility and food back on the agenda. One of Mayor Bloomberg’s flagship projects, the ban to sell soda or sugary drinks in larger than 16oz (0.47 litres) servings was blocked by the Manhattan Supreme Court – just one day before it was supposed to go into effect.

It puts an interesting spin on the debate on corporate responsibility of the food industry, which was a recent topic on our blog. Former business tycoon Bloomberg - in a rather non-business friendly manner – is obviously a strong believer in harsh, imperative, top-down governmental regulation when it comes to responsible business behavior. Whether this is just because he knows business in and out is an interesting question...

Be that as it may, resorting to strict regulation in this area has always been more of a European approach – as the fallout from the horse meat scandal in the EU now also seems to suggest. Even more interesting it is now to see how differently things work out in New York. First of all, the link between the amounts of sugar in Coke, Pepsi or Dr Pepper and the ongoing obesity epidemic in the US is more than obvious. Sugar contents are clearly labeled and therefore – unlike the horse meat scandal – it has little to do with the fact that consumers are misled or otherwise shortchanged.

The unsurprising news here is that the court case was brought up by the beverage industry. For them the judgment provides ‘a sigh of relief’, as one spokesman put it. More surprising though is the fact the ban - a sentence brought down by an otherwise liberal/left leaning judge - was very much opposed by another group of rather unusual suspects: African American and Hispanic community organizations.

In some ways, this is a rather preposterous occurrence. Exactly the demographics which are hardest hit by obesity are the ones opposed to the ban (and in other US states) also against taxation and other measures to rein in on consumption behavior. Their arguments, as a lengthy analysis in The Times this week surfaced, is mostly about economic and ethical issues: they find those measures a direct discrimination of minority consumption patterns, of minority businesses (like small corner shops and bodegas) and a general overreach of government into the nitty gritty of individual decision making.

Interestingly, the soft drinks industry has discovered this ally and heavily sponsors these groups – all under the cloak of ‘community engagement’, ‘partnership’ or ‘diversity stewardship’. Of course the industry denies that their funding of these groups influences their stand on the issue; and in some ways that is credible. But we can also say that the corporate interest to back such groups on the issue of regulating sugary drinks aligns perfectly with the agenda of minority groups – which makes them prime candidates for fighting together on the same issue.

In some ways then the approach taken by PepsiCo, Coca Cola and other soft drinks companies is the epitome of cynicism; or as Kant would put it, just using people as a means to an end. But then we knew that many big corporations, despite their engagement in CSR, Citizenship or Sustainability, are still by their very set-up self-interested predators.

The New York story of this week though also shows the limits of governments in encouraging responsible corporate behavior. As one community leader put it:
“I don’t think we move the needle by legislating what people ultimately eat or drink. [,,,] Our experience has been that you educate folks, empower folks — meet them where they are, basically.”
At the end of the day, it is about changing long entrenched consumption patterns and address blatant ignorance about our food, its ingredients and its impact on our health. All these things, however, have been shaped in no small way by those very corporations for a long time. Just think of their advertising budgets or their efforts to sell their products in schools to children, just to rope them into their products and consumption habits from early age.

In some ways this leads back to Bloomberg himself. He made his billions creating an information platform which has perfected the performance measures and ability of investors to learn about the finanicial performance of companies. As long as we do not change these incentives which drive the entire system, however harsh measures which are just targeting the symptoms are not going to work. In as much one can hardly argue with outlawing to sell sugary drinks by the buckets to vulnerable consumers as a good thing – the defeat of the measures in court shows that a superficial cure of the system of food production is not the solution. In that sense this week’s ruling may also be a blessing in disguise.

Picture by The Seafarer, reproduced under the Creative Commons License.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Fun facts about corporate accounting scandals

Regular readers will know that we have a soft spot for corporate responsibility infographics. The one below, which recently crossed our desk courtesy of, provides a nice overview of some of the big corporate accounting scandals of the last 15 years or so. The title may be misleading - it hardly seeks to capture the biggest scandals of "all time" - but it does give a good summary of those that have happened in recent memory. And the sources of the details they provide are cited - most of which (but not all) are pretty reliable. So if you want a five minute summary of all that's wrong in the world of accounting fraud, and you don't mind a strong US bias, this is a good place to start.

One thing we particularly like are the "fun facts" accompanying each scandal. OK, so most of these are not really much fun at all - is anyone laughing about the introduction of Sarbanes-Oxley after the Worldcom and Enron scandals? - but they do point to some of the absurdities of the system in which the accounting scandals have taken place. Enron being voted most innovative company six times in a row by Fortune magazine, Lehman brothers being honored with "Most Admired Securities Firm" a year before its collapse, AIG execs getting $165m in bonuses just after posting the largest quarterly loss in American corporate history and getting a government bailout? It doesn't say much about how well we scrutinize or reward supposedly "successful" companies, does it?

It's also interesting that the infographic has been created by an organization promoting online accounting degrees (we might add that their other Featured Article is titled "10 Accounting Tricks the 1% Use to Dodge the Taxman", which is also worth a look). Are they saying that an accounting degree will help avoid some of these problems in the future? That what we need are better accounting degrees? That an on-line offering is in any way more or less likely to lead people to engage in shady accounting practices? Clearly there is an important role for accounting education in here somewhere, but we're not too sure about the offerings being recommended by, or even who the organization is or what its methodology is. In the spirit of good accounting, a little more transparency would be a good thing. But don't let that stand in the way of enjoying a nice infographic.

The 10 Worst Corporate Accounting Scandals of All Time

Photo by AJC1. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence