Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Social responsibility and Corporations

From the February 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard


Can corporations be trusted, or even expected, to have any social responsibility?

Millions, billions even, are spent by corporations in PR attempts to green up their images. Not spent to improve conditions for their workers, not spent to find alternative, better methods of production less harmful to the environment, not spent to seriously reduce consumption of the world's shrinking non-renewable resources, not spent to significantly reduce pollution of the planet's earth, air and water; simply spent to present an illusion of green, caring, altruistic, socially responsible business. One may even be lulled into believing that profit is the least of their worries.


Yeah, but – that far too frequent punctuation in what was meant to be a meaningful conversation – there are laws and regulations that outlaw trade in illegal timber and diamonds and there are agreements like Kyoto to reduce pollution and big name companies are now taking responsibility for the level of pay and conditions of their workers in the sweatshops in Indonesia and Bangladesh etc.


Right, of course. There are laws and agreements and treaties but for every one there are loopholes. Agreements are signed and then reneged on regularly. The buck gets passed from pillar to post with elites denying knowledge until forced by public pressure to 'take steps' to repair damage done to their image. Business just doesn't work with the best interest of the majority in mind. We have to look at the raison d'être of the business world which is not to make or supply goods specifically at the behest of the citizenry, not to provide the services demanded by them. Business makes the goods and provides the services and manufactures the need. It is simply and straightforwardly to make a profit. One very simple example is the call-centre. Who do you know who would choose to sit waiting on the end of a phone with mind-numbing music and recorded apologies just to get the answer to a simple question and you know you're waiting while the company is either making money by selling you something or saving money by not employing enough bodies to answer the phones. Where's the responsibility to the consumer there?


Yeah, but we need these products and services anyway, don't we?


Maybe we do need some of them but many products are produced for a created market; stuff to sell to those who have enough money to be in any particular market place. Obsolescence is built in – to cars, washing machines and other electrical gear; fans' football strip needs replacing/updating once or twice a year; fashion is a must in everything, spurred on by advertising and the media, itself a smaller and smaller group of expanding mega-businesses concentrating profit and control into fewer and fewer hands; clothes, furniture, house decoration, garden decoration, accessories of all kinds, creating an unending lust for more, more, more. The other side of this is that millions of people don't have access to most of this stuff because they don't have the resources or the access to earn the resources with which to pay for them. Even sufficient food, clean drinking water and adequate shelter is beyond the reach of many. This surely demonstrates that the over-riding motivation is profit, not responsibility. There is a green-washing, white-washing, brain-washing going on constantly by corporations and their PR departments trying to keep up with or preferably to stay one step ahead of the watchdogs and activists ready to reveal their next miscalculated step.


Yeah, but the activists and watchdogs do get some changes made . . .


Yes, they do. However, what gains are made are more than made up for by losses in other areas. Ask the activists. Ask them and ask yourself why there are more activists working in more areas than there ever were before. Slavery was abolished generations ago but it hasn't stopped slavery and trafficking. Forcing one clothing company to stop employing children or to pay a minimum wage or to allow their workers some time off the premises or even to accept that these are areas of their responsibility, not just of their sub-contractors' doesn't address the fundamental issue of general social responsibility. 'Social responsibility' and 'environmental responsibility' have become convenient screens to hide behind, theatrical masks behind which amoral, unethical pirates can continue their quest for a larger share of the world's pie untouched by the cognisance of starving millions who can't get close enough to even smell the pie. The fact is, whatever sop a corporation may deign to give, whatever concessions any number of corporations may yield, globally there are more people without work, without prospect of work, who are homeless, who are destitute – and closer to home there are more who work longer hours for less pay, who have reduced pension rights and less bargaining power.

Yeah, but back to public pressure . . .


Public pressure is important but to know, to be aware of what form that pressure should take is more important. Public awareness must come first for any kind of pressure to be effective. First we have to recognise that the corporations are just following their designated route in pursuing maximum profits so it's pointless complaining about them doing their utmost to fulfil their mission. If we focus on this only as a single issue then we are allowing ourselves to be sidetracked. If we truly wish to give people and the environment a fair deal we have to see this issue as one part of a much bigger whole. In this particular issue the only way to positively affect the whole production line from raw material to consumer is to remove the profit involved. By removing money from any transaction along the chain the gains will be for the environment and people's welfare. Similarly with regard to other issues (water – health / big dams / privatisation; wars – weapons and proliferation / numberless casualties; oil the far too frequent punctuation in what was meant to be a meaningful conversation conflict / environmental problems / imbalance in use of resources; farming – cash crop problems / big pharma – seed rights ownership / landless peasants; trafficking – drugs / sex / workers / babies; and on and on---) awareness of the negative effects of the money/profit system reveal that, as it's the capitalist system itself that requires this profit motive at its base to function, it goes without saying, it's the capitalist system as a whole which has to be replaced. And imagine how much more quickly that change could be brought about with the combined effort and energy of all those dedicated people around the world seeking justice and fairness for all through their single issue campaigns; how much stronger and more powerful the whole when all the separate parts work together for the ultimate single issue, socialism.

Janet Surman