Industry gears up for Johannesburg
Corporations and their lobby groups have perfected their greenwash skills in order to convince governments and global bodies to allow them to operate increasingly unregulated in the global market. In the run-up to the WSSD in Johannesburg, a large-scale business campaign is quickly consolidating these gains and attempting to ward off the backlash against the neoliberal global economic model.
CAPTAINS of industry from around the world gathered in Paris in early October for their first major strategy meeting for the WSSD. Their host, Business Action for Sustainable Development (BASD), is a joint creation of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). The BASD has plans for ‘rallying the collective forces of world business in the lead up to next year’s  Earth Summit’.
The tone of the conference showed that business is feeling the heat from groups campaigning for binding international rules on corporate activities. In defence of ‘voluntary action’ and ‘self-regulation’, the BASD plans to fine-tune the dubious PR tools developed by corporate lobby groups in recent years. Handpicked, isolated examples of environment and social initiatives by BASD member corporations will be marketed as ‘proof’ of corporate commitment to sustainable development. This piecemeal approach will be coupled with a divide-and-rule strategy: a new conciliatory tone, combined with dialogue and ‘partnership’ with the ‘responsible’ NGOs, coupled with the demonisation of critics of corporate-led globalisation.
At a strategy meeting of a new grouping with the name Business Action for Sustainable Development one might have expected some degree of corporate self-reflection. An open debate about the responsibility of TNCs for the global social and environmental crisis would have been very appropriate, considering the participation of numerous corporate black sheep. BASD member companies TotalFinaElf, Rio Tinto, Procter and Gamble, Aventis, Fiat, BP and Shell continue to be involved in operations which have environmental, social and human rights impacts that are contradictory to the ‘sustainable development’ rhetoric, however loose its definition is.
Legacy of sustainability?
The desire to sidestep criticism from NGOs was a recurring theme in all of the debates that took place in Paris. One example was the decision to not (directly) fund the WSSD despite requests from the South African government. The BASD wants to avoid ‘the compromising situation of appearing to use financial contributions to influence a major UN event, particularly when the focus of much attention is on the so-called ‘power’ and ‘influence’ of multinational companies and their impact on globalisation’. The BASD also decided not to mount a commercial exhibition of ‘best practices’, which has become a regular side-feature at UN summits.
A safer bet, the BASD decided, was to fund so-called ‘legacy projects’ in Johannesburg and other parts of Africa. These ‘legacy projects’ are defined as ‘grassroots sustainable development projects in the most needy communities in Africa’. But a glance at the list of potential projects presented at the Paris meeting shows that there is good reason to look beyond the rhetoric. The list not only includes several nuclear energy projects, but also the West African Gas Pipeline, a controversial mega-project designed to transport Chevron’s Nigerian gas reserves to neighbouring countries. This project, actively resisted by numerous communities in the region and grassroots groups around the world, would have disastrous consequences, including the legacy of displacing over 50,000 families.
In Johannesburg, the CEOs gathered under the BASD umbrella are also banking on making an impact with a special ‘business day’ when the heads of state arrive at the Summit. BASD boss Sir Mark Moody-Stuart (the recently retired chairman of Shell) said he was ‘reasonably confident that during the second week of the Summit, business leaders who are present will have an opportunity to interact constructively with government leaders’.
Marketing ‘corporate citizenship’
The Paris conference crystallised the focus of the business campaign towards the WSSD on case studies of ‘how business contributes to sustainable development’. The BASD will essentially wage a PR campaign to boost the image of TNCs through highlighting isolated examples of social, environmental and human rights initiatives as ‘proof’ of corporate commitment to sustainable development. The ICC and the WBCSD have eagerly exploited feel-good stories about ‘voluntary action’, corporate philanthropy and partnerships with ‘stakeholders’ in the last few years. Whether or not the stories are accurate, they prove nothing about a corporation’s overall record. The attraction of the piecemeal approach, however, is clear. Presented in sponsored sections of major international newspapers, in ads in glossy magazines and on corporate web pages, the case studies leave most readers with a positive feeling, but few possibilities to verify or obtain a complete picture of the corporation’s impact on people and the environment.
While the BASD’s ambition seems to be little more than a common industry effort to continue the misleading PR practices of the WBCSD and the ICC, both parent organisations also have their own initiatives for Johannesburg. The ICC is building on its cooperation with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and will present the ‘World Summit Business Awards for Sustainable Development Partnerships’ in Johannesburg.
And since earlier last year, the WBCSD has released a flood of ‘best practice’ stories through its ‘Business and the Rio Decade’ series, published as sponsored sections in the International Herald Tribune. In October for example, TEPCO was applauded for its investments in nuclear energy, while water giant Suez Lyonnaisse des Eaux was hailed for its participation in a scheme to provide water in poor neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires. The article makes no mention of how this French TNC aggressively pushes for the privatisation of water services worldwide, depriving many low-income people from access to this basic necessity by turning it into a profit-making activity.
Sweet words or divide-and-rule?
‘Dialogue’ and ‘partnerships’ with civil society ‘stakeholders’ have become a standard tool used by business to deal with critics and provide a cloak of legitimacy over their political influence. The BASD applied this subtler, more diplomatic approach when their conference participants in Paris were greeted by a delegation of some 50 protesters from different European countries. Accompanied by a samba band, activists fixed banners to the outside wall of the ICC headquarters. Passers-by could read slogans such as ‘Business is Part of the Problem, Not the Solution’ and ‘No to the Privatisation of the UN’. While two activists handcuffed themselves inside the building, others used green paint to ‘greenwash’ corporate logos, afterwards hanging them to dry on a washing line. Before the arrival of the conference participants via a back door, BASD chairman Mark Moody-Stuart invited the activists to join in the meeting to explain their critique.
The protesters, however, refused to join the meeting. In a public statement, they recognised the ‘dialogue’ strategy and said they refused to lend undeserved legitimacy to the BASD by engaging in the conference. The statement pointed out that despite the overdose of corporate environmental rhetoric, BASD member companies continue to violate environmental and social rights around the world. The protesters also underlined the fact that BASD member companies, through fora such as the Transatlantic Business Dialogue (TABD), push for policies that are incompatible with their claims that they are committed to sustainable development.
Moody-Stuart feels that success in Johannesburg means demonstrating ‘that business is playing a full part towards the achievement of sustainable development in partnership with other stakeholders’. In a recent article in the Financial Times, he stressed his willingness to exchange views with critics, stating, ‘If people feel they are excluded from having their point made, they get frustrated - which is extremely dangerous’.
Underlying his patronising tone is the worrying strategy of ‘divide and rule’ in dealing with critics. The BASD has developed a standard set of soundbites referring to civil society groups, including Moody-Stuart’s assertion that ‘the vast majority [of NGOs] are fundamentally constructive and want to contribute’. With groups that engage in partnerships or dialogue with industry portrayed as the only responsible ones, groups that might have a more fundamental critique and who are less ready to compromise their demands are marginalised.
The ICC has a particularly troubled history in its relations with critics of the corporate agenda, routinely questioning the legitimacy of civil society groups that demand fundamental changes in the global economic system.
Recently, ICC spokespeople went into overdrive in an outrageous and opportunistic attempt to manipulate public opinion by linking the so-called anti-globalisation movement with the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. ICC Secretary-General Maria Livanos Cattaui argued that failing to launch a new round of multilateral trade negotiations at the WTO summit in Qatar would be ‘a setback that would be acclaimed by all enemies of freer world trade and investment, including those behind the attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon’. Cynically using the same PR opportunity, Dean R O’Hare of the ICC’s US affiliate made an appeal for a new WTO round in order to ‘overcome the forces of terror and anti-globalisation to continue to expand trade and investment’.
Rules with teeth or self-regulation?
There can be little doubt that the desire to oppose binding international regulations for corporations is a key motive behind industry campaigns towards the WSSD. In his opening speech at the Paris conference, Moody-Stuart argued that promoting a positive image of TNCs was urgent, ‘as others see the need for legislation and codes with teeth to make sure that business, which they regard as unlikely otherwise to pay any attention to anything other than short-term profits, is compelled to adopt certain standards and procedures’.
Although Moody-Stuart does not openly reject regulation, he argues that it is generally not needed. He warns: ‘The damage is in regulations that instead of specifying desired outcome, tell you what to do. This stifles creativity.’ In place of regulation, Moody-Stuart advocates the so-called stakeholder model, in which an issue is identified by society and is dealt with in consultation and debate with all stakeholders. Finally, so the theory goes, major companies will take the necessary steps within a ‘free-market framework’ and competition will deliver the best solutions.
Moody-Stuart ignores the fact that this model of self-regulation, despite its popularity among governments in the last decade, has proved incapable of solving the social and environmental global crisis. There is mounting evidence that initiatives such as voluntary codes of conduct, self-regulation and market-based pseudo-solutions are, at best, inadequate and are certainly no substitute for mandatory and enforceable rules.
A growing number of groups in the North and South, including Friends of the Earth International, are now demanding that the WSSD discusses a UN mechanism with legal powers to force corporations to respect human, environmental and social rights, wherever they operate. - Corporate Europe Observatory
The above, adapted from an article in Corporate Europe Observer Issue 10, December 2001 (www.xs4all.nl/~ceo), is reproduced from Link (No. 99, December 2001).