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LET'S TALK ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS PRACTICES—AND YOUR PROFITS
By Kari Lydersen

Many signs at recent antiwar events around the country bore the slogan, “No blood for oil.”

Jason Mark, the clean-car campaigner for Global Exchange, suggests that in order to enforce that demand, “Instead of going to the government and saying ‘No blood,’ we should be going to Detroit and saying ‘No oil.’”

Specifically, he means attending the protest at the June 7-16 shareholders’ meeting and centennial celebration for Ford Motor Company in Detroit. Or failing that, organizing a protest in another city for a June 7 Ford National Day of Action.

The protests against Ford are organized by Global Exchange and the Rainforest Action Network (RAN). They are an example of what is currently one of the most popular and arguably most effective tactics for enacting change: corporate accountability, or “market” campaigns.

With the federal government relaxing many environmental and workplace protections and increasing deregulation in almost every major industry, going through government bureaucratic or legislative channels to try to crack down on corporations for pollution, human-rights abuses or labor infractions is a lengthy, frustrating and often ineffective battle.

But by targeting corporations directly, through highly public direct-action campaigns, organizations can speak to companies in a language they understand: the language of the bottom line. As corporations that spend millions on hiring elite advertising agencies and PR consultants know all too well, image is everything, and enough negative publicity can be deadly for even a major corporation.

“Brand image and brand value are the most important things to American CEOs,” said Michael Brune, executive director of RAN. “They will spend hundreds of millions over a period of years to increase their brand value.”

Issues having to do with global warming and the environment are a particularly fertile ground for market campaigns, since people across the socioeconomic spectrum are generally aware that we are all directly affected by environmental matters.

With the Ford campaign, RAN and Global Exchange are demanding that CEO Bill Ford Jr. officially promise to increase the average fuel efficiency of its fleet to 50 miles per gallon by 2010 and completely eliminate tailpipe emissions by 2020. They note that they’re demanding a specific, enforceable promise since, in their view, Ford reneged on a somewhat vague promise made several years ago to increase fuel efficiencies in SUVs.

“Ford is years behind the curve [in terms of fuel efficiency]. Sadly, your recent announcement that you would break your promises on SUV fuel efficiency has only weakened Ford’s position,” said a letter from RAN and Global Exchange to Ford.

Contrary to industry claims that increasing fuel efficiency might indirectly cause job losses, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that increasing fuel economy to an average 40 miles per gallon industrywide by 2012 would actually have a significant beneficial effect on the job market, creating 182,700 new jobs by 2015.

Along with the ongoing Ford campaign, RAN has recently had successful campaigns against two of the country’s other largest multinational corporations, Boise Corp. and Citigroup Inc. (Spokespeople for the three corporations did not return calls in time for this story.)

RAN has long been targeting Boise, formerly called Boise Cascade, a paper and office-supply company, for its role in deforesting millions of acres of old-growth forest around the world through logging operations and polluting rivers and other ecosystems with the byproducts of logging. Protests led by student groups have convinced numerous colleges to stop using Boise as their supplier, and in a huge victory, RAN persuaded Kinko’s, the ubiquitous chain of copy stores, to stop buying from Boise. Among various schools taking action against Boise, this spring Western Washington University rejected a bid from Boise (and one from Georgia Pacific) to be a supplier and set a policy requiring all university offices to buy 100-percent post-consumer paper (meaning recycled as opposed to made from trees).

Boise reported a major drop in its first quarter earnings this year. While company reports attribute the loss to a harsh winter and high pension and energy costs, activists feel sure this is a sign that their campaign is working.

“We think Boise can’t continue to survive unless they reinvent themselves as a modern company concerned with environmental issues,” said Brune, noting that Boise recently changed its name and logo—in response, he believes, to all the bad publicity about its environmental practices. “They’re under intense pressure from over a dozen major customers to get out of old-growth forests. It’s to the point where many customers are embarrassed to even be associated with them and are canceling their contracts. They’re either going to get pushed out of old growth or pushed out of business.”

While Brune thinks Boise is “on the verge” of developing a more environmentally friendly policy, the company has fought RAN every step of the way. Two years ago, he said, the company sent out letters to all of RAN’s funders “calling us anti-capitalist, anti-American, dangerous radicals.”

Meanwhile in mid-April, RAN and Citigroup declared a “cease-fire” in RAN’s campaign against the huge finance company. RAN has been demanding that Citigroup stop financing projects that involve massive logging, mining or other environmental destruction leading to deforestation and global warming around the world. Among its various tactics, the organization financed an ad campaign featuring celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Ed Asner telling people to cut up their Citibank credit cards.

Citigroup has also been the target of ongoing accountability campaigns from economic-rights and student groups because of the widespread predatory lending record of its subsidiary Citifinancial. In a joint release with RAN on April 15, Citigroup pledged to “take additional measures to reduce degradation or destruction of endangered ecosystems in the conduct of our business,” including reporting on greenhouse gas emissions of projects it finances and moving to invest in “less carbon-intensive sources of energy.” The release also said Citigroup is spearheading efforts to create industrywide environmental standards for project finance, with a first draft already completed.

“At the end of our negotiation period we’ll be looking closely to see if Citigroup pulls out of investments that endanger ecosystems,” said Brune. “If they don’t, we’ll renew our public campaigns.” The market/corporate accountability angle has been an underpinning of the antiglobalization movement, coming into its own in the United States with the protests during the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle in 1999. Since then, RAN and Global Exchange note that they have been involved in various campaigns leading to concrete industrywide improvements: RAN counts Home Depot among its other major successes, while Global Exchange has won concessions from Starbucks, Nike and the Gap.

Just a few other examples of ongoing corporate accountability campaigns are the Coca-Cola boycott, called because of the murders of union activists orchestrated by Coca-Cola bottlers in Colombia, and the Taco Bell boycott, called by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Immokalee, Fla., because Taco Bell buys its tomatoes from contractors there who hold workers in literal debt slavery.

Many of the corporate accountability movements are spearheaded by college student groups, who often have special power in this realm since their schools are usually major buyers from and investors in multinational companies like Boise, Coca-Cola and Nike. But the strategy attracts a wide variety of activists, often resulting in successful collaborations that can become springboards for future campaigns.

“It’s very exciting to have a partnership between these two groups,” Mark said of the Ford campaign. “RAN is an environmental group and we’re a human-rights group, so together we can reach different constituencies and address the different ways that oil addiction is dangerous.”

Interfaith, Christian and Jewish groups also have a large presence in the corporate accountability movement. Besides the direct-action approach, a whole other sector of the movement, which is popular with faith-based organizations, is the shareholder- responsibility strategy. Here individuals, organizations or churches buy enough shares in a company to be able to introduce shareholder resolutions, which are voted on by the shareholders. Even if they are defeated, the resolutions bring an issue to the attention of upper management and the media.

A group of church-based groups and sisterhoods are actually planning to introduce an anti-global-warming shareholder resolution aimed at General Motors Corporation at its shareholder meeting in early June; the group had planned to introduce a similar resolution at Ford’s meeting but withdrew it after Ford representatives met with the group, acknowledged the problem of global warming and promised to address it.

“We’re glad Ford met with them, we just feel more action is needed,” noted Mark about the Ford issue.

Activists see the corporate accountability movement continuing to grow and gain a foothold in the mechanisms of international commerce in the coming years. “The corporate accountability movement has been going on for 200 years, but during the 1990s we really saw an increase in targeting corporations,” said Mark, who recently completed a book on the movement. “Much as we see in the Ford campaign, the real locus of power in this country and in the world has shifted from the elected government to the unelected multinational corporations. So we have little choice but to go directly to the companies.”

Kari Lydersen writes for the Washington Post and is an instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program in Chicago.


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