Maxeiner and Miersch

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The VIII Zavikon Conference at Bieberstein Castle near Dresden in February 2003 dealt with "Global Values and Global Stability", i.e. with different beliefs and values in the world, its repercussions on the future of Europe and the transatlantic relations, and on steps toward effective and credible "global governance".The Conferences are organized in cooperation with the Elfriede Dräger Memorial Foundation. The following comment has been given in response to Roland Kupers, Vice President, Sustainable Development, Royal Dutch Shell Group of Companies, who presented a background to the steps that Shell has taken in terms of integrating the economic, social and environmental dimensions in its business.


Lessons from Brent Spar

Comment by Dirk Maxeiner


The Brent Spar issue to me as an environmental journalist at the time, was a key experience, too, but in rather a different way than it was for Shell.The Germans in the audience today may well remember the public outcry and the hysteria during those days, especially in Germany. Shell faced a public boycott, and even Molotov cocktails were thrown at Shell petrol stations. Chancellor Kohl joined the protest and, when Shell suspended its operations in Germany, the German tabloid Bildzeitung had headlines saying "Victory". I was frightened - what had happened? Had we won World War III? It was very strange. Some called the Brent Spar accident the PR disaster of the century and it changed a lot. Shell was, I think, shocked by what happened. Before Brent Spar, Shell's communication was characterized, as mentioned, by a sort of bunker mentality, and a lot of issues were taboo. After Brent Spar, there seemed to be a new culture of openness, and a lot of positive changes took place, and as I understand, there is a long-term strategy behind this.

For me as an environmental journalist, however, when Brent Spar happened I began to wonder about the difference between credibility or trust and truth. Credibility and truth are not the same. Sometimes credibility is even the opposite of truth. Shell has told the truth about Brent Spar. It was Greenpeace who did not tell the truth. Their information about the amount of potentially harmful substances in the rig was simply wrong. As we know today, the sinking of Brent Spar would have had practically no ecological impact on the marine system in the North Atlantic. In 1995, however, Greenpeace had the credibility and Shell only had the truth, so the oil company didn't have the slightest chance against Greenpeace. The good news in this I think is that these multinational corporations are not as mighty as one might think, at least when they are dealing directly with the consumer. But the other lesson is not such a good lesson. It has been learnt that telling the truth does not help much, at least if you don't have the credibility or the trust. So I think the dispute between corporations, non governmental-organisations and politics today often is not much about truth or facts. Its about credibility. And I think this is often a problem.

A simple example: Shell invested an additional 25 million Euros, or some amount like that, to recycle Brent Spar on shore. This amount was not an investment in the environment - the money could have been used much more effectively for other environmental purposes. In other words, Shell made this investment in credibility. From the viewpoint of the company, this behavior is completely rational and understandable. On the other hand, there is a strong tendency today to put company or state money into issues where public hysteria is momentarily the greatest. We see such cases every other day. The same is true of new laws and regulations. Priorities are often set not for the most urgent problems, but for those with the most public attention.

Today we sometimes even find ourselves in the situation where attempts to calm vociferous groups hurt other, weaker parts of society who fail to attract public interest. I would like to give you an example of this which was recently published by the British magazine The Economist. American sports goods supplier Reebok claims internationally to have pioneered good corporate practice. As far as I am informed, they even have a department for human rights. Reebok has just decided to withdraw business from a subcontracted factory in Thailand as proof of corporate caring. The reason is that the employees were working more than 72 hours a week. Reebok pulled out of that factory because they feared accusations in the Western public. For sure, it is responsible to press for better standards, and none of us would like to do a job like that, but while we would have an alternative, the question is, what is the alternative there? So is it responsible to abolish those jobs without even asking the workers in Thailand? Workers at the Bangkok factory were paid above the minimum wage, with health care and safety regulations that few local manufacturers would offer. Many employees in developing countries, as we know, want to work more hours rather than fewer. The workers in Thailand are now poor again, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The Economist used the headline "Ethically Unemployed" to describe the situation, and they added that perhaps this practice should be relabeled "corporate social irresponsibility". I asked a political writer from India and a friend of mine, about this case, to find out what he thought about it from his viewpoint. He told me that these people are not protecting the poor, they are the enemies of the poor, and we should not treat them politely. So what started out as new, more open and more responsible corporate behavior - I'm talking about Reebok, not Shell - suddenly ends up in a moral mess.

Thus the business of gaining moral high ground becomes really strange, and in some cases has even created a kind of politically correct entrepreneurship. Some members of the business community today talk about values, fairness and principles with all the zeal of an anti-corporate lobbyist. If you close your eyes and listen, you sometimes cannot tell whether you are attending a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos or the World Social Forum in Porto Allegre. I don't know whether this is good or not, but I am just wondering, and would like to give you an example of this kind of rhetoric. A few weeks ago I received a press release from an organization called European Partners of the Environment (EPE), an organization which wants to promote a transition towards sustainable development. I would have liked to discuss the term sustainable development a bit more, because it is an extremely confused term, but this would be debate on its own. So let me just mention: Almost everybody seems to be in favour of sustainable development. This simply is possible, because everybody has his own idea what sustainability means (the Massachusetts Institute for Technologie counted 57 different definitions of the term). Many of them are potentially anti-liberal and anti-market.

The ideas of EPE hint exactly in this direction. On the board of EPE there are representatives from Coca Cola, Dow Europe, Monsanto, Sony, Deutsche Bank, Price Waterhouse Coopers, and Unilever, to name but a few. Shell is not on the list - you are lucky! I would like to quote the president of this organization as he describes his concept of the future: "Europe should be established as a player in globalization with a project that is the exact opposite of the vision of a western industrial predatory society in relation to the common good, creating greater and greater inequalities. We need to present a project characterized by the ability to be universalized at the level of the whole of mankind, not a system serving a small number of people to the detriment of the vast majority, as is the case with the current development model. A global wellbeing society alliance will be endowed with a new universalism."

I really wonder what a global wellbeing society is supposed to be. To me it sounds like Animal Farm. Let me make a few remarks about this statement. I think some of the assumptions are wrong, while others are at least disputable. The Speakers yesterday showed us a slightly more differentiated picture of the state of the world in economic terms, for example comparing the situation today with that one hundred years ago. To me it seems extremely strange that a representative of the business community does not find a single word in defense of capitalism, freedom and Western values. You don't have to love them, but we shouldn't necessarily forget them - that's the impression one could gain. This statement is exactly the same as the phrases of anti-globalization activists. I started to collect sources like that, and there are many of them. It might be fashionable to describe the history of Western civilization, science and technology as a decline, but the facts in my eyes don't permit such a verdict.

Our system, for sure, is not perfect, but it is preferable to the new doctrines of salvation. The question is, can it really be the task of international corporations to establish a global wellbeing society? Don't get me wrong - it's absolutely positive that companies are eager to demonstrate a sense of social or environmental responsibility, but sometimes I think that, at least in the public's view, some corporations or business people seem to switch from that old, bad bunker mentality to just appeasing opponents. Sometimes acting responsibly means standing up against demagogic messages, whoever sends these. Acting responsibly may also mean rejecting public threats and hysteria which are not based on facts. And I think the same is true of politics. And this is what I often miss. Thank you.