Back in the 1962, Houghton Mifflin published Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which brought the deleterious effects of pesticides on nature and humans to the attention of the general public and, ultimately, the US federal government. It was a powerful and courageous investigative work, undoubtedly emotional and designed to generate public outrage. It did. And it also earned the author an outrageous campaign of mostly slander from the US chemical industry and its allies in the conservative press.
But Silent Spring also begot change in people’s attitudes towards the impact the chemical industry was having on their lives and the world about them, and the more the industry ranted, the more the topic moved into the spotlight. Modern environmentalism, one could say, was born right there and then. Increasingly, enterprises across all sectors had to be careful as journalists, always in search of a good story in the good old days, kept their receivers tuned to a prolific industrial disaster channel. For its part, the public relations industry was given a brand new, lucrative area of work, crisis management and reputation management, which now intersects neatly with modern corporate social responsibility, or CSR.
The corporate world might wonder at times why its efforts at “cleaning up its act” with CSR are not being hosannaed by a grateful public. Skepticism, however, is natural and even justified. Industrial history is littered with major accidents that have cause untold misery and death and they are not all in the distant past, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
From Roche’s Seveso fiasco in 1976 and the Bhopal disaster in 1984, to the sludge disasters in Martin Hill County, Kentucky (2000), or Ajka, Hungary (2010), from Chernobyl to Fukushima, from the Exxon Valdez crash, to BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, from the dumping of mercury in Minamata’s lake in the mid 1950s, to the poisoning of the Rhine by Sandoz in 1986, the depressing list goes on and on. And it is not limited to heavy industry. Nestlé has never quite shaken the powdered milk scandal of the 1970s, and the thalidomide scandal in the late 1950s was evidence of shoddy research work by the pharmaceutical industry. The financial meltdown that drove the world economy off the cliff in 2008 causing millions to lose their jobs and even hunger as commodity prices rose fertilised by speculation was not an act of God, but rather of men of very dubious character.
Froth and truth
Many of these incidents could have been avoided, usually with a few investments, some common sense and, above all, a healthy portion of scruples. But worse yet, the post-mortems of these disasters often show that the main approach to crisis management is to obfuscate, deviate, shift attention, blamestorm and outright lie, to make sure the company is protected, more often than not at the expense of the victims.
The mantra of corporations, “We can regulate ourselves,” serves to fight off any attempt at government regulation, which they always allege is ineffective. Alas, the evidence is not in corporate favour. Had governments not set up watchdog agencies and imposed regulations, nothing would have happened. It took years of hard work to get GE to do its share in cleaning up the PCBs it dumped into the Housatonic River in Western Massachusetts, which is still polluted to this day, and then close the company in the town of Pittsfield, leaving thousands unemployed. And occupational and safety at the workplace were not foisted upon entrepreneurs by stick-in-the-mud bureaucrats with leftist-Socialist leanings. They were written to avoid what happened to the so-called Radium Girls, women who painted watch dials at the U.S. radium factory in New Jersey in the 1920s using radium paint. The company scientists and managers knew of the danger and protected themselves, but the workers were encouraged to use their mouths to groom the tiny brushes. And when these women brought their case before the courts in 1927, the company fought tooth and nail to avoid responsibility.
To this day, conservative voices consistently portray environmentalists as anti-progress. It’s a calumny for the most part. What ecologically minded people want is transparency, conscientiousness, responsibility and honesty. Upstanding engineers would take no issue with these feelings, but the business class, often misinformed by press agents and PR managers, is more likely to pass the buck to save a few bucks. Yet being transparent and proactive is probably what would really give CSR teeth.
Finally, CSR should not just be in the hands of corporations. Taking responsibility is, in the end, just as much up to consumers. They have to become aware, alert and independent regarding what they are buying and why. Nowadays, the origin of every product is usually indicated on a little tag, and that can and should inform our decisions. These decisions can alter a company’s human resource strategy or even improve a product, especially with the Internet as a multiplicator.
Article by Marton Radkai