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.
Copyright © 1996-2011 Dirk Maxeiner and Michael Miersch.
All rights reserved.