This Thursday, the School of Natural Resources and Environment and the Stephen M. Ross School of Business will form an unholy alliance in sponsoring a panel discussion entitled “Surviving Scrutiny: Corporations in the Age of Global Business,” featuring representatives from Nike, Timberland, Starbucks and Coca-Cola — all corporations facing criticism for unsavory business practices both in the United States and abroad. These representatives will do their damnedest to paint their corporations as the helpless prey of manipulative, bloodthirsty accusers seeking personal gain. In this context, scrutiny has a negative connotation — those being scrutinized are victims and scrutiny is inherently undesirable.
The panel is sponsored in part by Starbucks, which is also a panel participant, and the Corporate Environmental Management Program, whose mission is to train future leaders to “continually draw upon their interdisciplinary training to inspire, develop and implement innovative and practicable methods for cultivating a sustainable future.” This is a noble enough venture whose feasibility is brought into question given that it is sponsored by such renowned stewards of the land as Ford, Pfizer and Dow Chemical (who gave over $2.5 million, elevating it to “Gold-level” status). The panel will be moderated by CEMP co-director Andy Hoffman, who currently sits on the Purchasing Dispute Review Board. This board was created by University President Mary Sue Coleman to ensure that companies the University does business with follow a series of labor and environmental standards laid out in the Vendor Code of Conduct. Coca-Cola is currently the subject of intense scrutiny by this board, which is considering recommending that the University not renew its contract with the purveyor of everything from the seemingly benign Dasani bottled water to Odwalla juices. Coke’s abuses range from complicity in the murder of nine Colombian union leaders to depleting sources of groundwater in India, and selling thirsty villagers a beverage with a level of toxins so high it has become a popular pesticide. While Coca-Cola should certainly be allowed to have its say, it strikes me as questionable that a member of a board whose job it is to scrutinize corporations will be moderating a panel featuring a Coca-Cola representative discussing the company’s methods of overcoming such scrutiny.
The tone of the panel’s title negates the benefits of transparency by making it seem like an unreasonable demand. Transparency is vital if democratic governments are to function democratically, and it is required of corporations to some extent in order to ensure that they are operating within the bounds of the law — especially with regards to labor and environmental regulations. The idea of “surviving scrutiny” implies that simple monitoring to determine if such regulations are being followed is inherently harmful to the companies. Corporations facing such scrutiny often opt to greenwash, which is the strategy of adopting a handful of token environmental and labor standards in order to portray an image of environmental and social responsibility. Greenwashers tout self-monitoring in order to enhance this image — for example, Nike points to its own code of conduct banning child labor in its factories whenever it receives criticism for its labor practices. However, self-monitoring lacks the accountability necessary in order to ensure that standards are actually followed, and not just symbolically touted in order to deflect criticism — making it ultimately ineffective.
An entire industry of damage controllers has spawned in order to help companies confront and neutralize scrutiny. Dezenhall Resources is one especially effective firm, which prides itself on coming to the rescue of clients who are “facing product recalls, health, safety, or environmental concerns, facility or worker-related safety incidents, financial or corporate controversies, community disputes and security threats.” Its strategy of spin involves directly confronting scrutiny in order to defuse it, as criticism creates “conflicts that only stop when the aggressors themselves are put at risk.” Dezenhall Resources even glorifies the battle against such scrutiny by claiming that it “offers unexploited opportunities — and competitive advantages — for companies willing to assert themselves in the face of adversity.” Eric Dezenhall, the organization’s founder, claims in his book “Nail’em: Confronting High-Profile Attacks on Celebrities and Businesses” that increased scrutiny of corporations is the result of the “Culture of Attack” in which those who challenge corporations are inherently self-serving individuals whose final goal is to assume the status and wealth of those they are fighting against. In this new cultural environment, there is no such thing as higher ideals of social justice, only unadulterated greed that makes the “have-nots” now the “want-mores.” Under this assumption, those who suffer as a result of real corporate greed move from victims to “attackers,” losing the moral high ground and becoming fair game for reprisals.
What Dezenhall fails to acknowledge is that there is no money to be made by pressuring Nike to end child labor, by investigating allegations that Coca-Cola kills union leaders or by criticizing Starbucks for intentionally stifling independent coffee shops. Dezenhall and his ideological ilk lump enterprising individuals suing high-profile celebrities for monetary gain together with reform-seeking victims of corporate policies. Activists with mostly noble intentions are associated with a group commonly viewed with contempt, negating their altruism and invalidating their credibility.
Destroying the legitimacy of the scrutinizers by painting them as covetous opportunists is the job of the public relations officials coming on Thursday. “Surviving Scrutiny” will be an exercise in moral jujitsu, as representatives from among the world’s most powerful corporations with the most abhorrent labor and environment a track records are given free reign to portray themselves as the true victims of oppression.
Mallen can be reached at email@example.com.