Development Crossing

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Sustainability

I guess I am a little ticked off tonight. Here I am watching the Olympics and I am bombarded with Exxon ads featuring high-minded employees touting Exxon’s $750,000 contribution to fight malaria with mosquito nets. Then I go to my computer and I get a feed on a Corporate Social Responsibility website called Responsible China (!) praising Exxon humanitarian work. Okay. I know Exxon actually does contribute to humanitarian causes in all kinds of oil-rich off-the-beaten-path countries. It is good and at the same time it is pathetic. Honestly, Exxon spends millions more on advertising costs telling us how good they are rather than on being good! More importantly, Corporate Responsibility and clear-eyed ethics do not pursue a core business that is wildly destructive to the environment, is a primary engine of climate change, and exploits consumers in an economy-wrecking policy of manipulated oil markets all the while refusing to adequately compensate for or even clean up their infamous Alaska oil spill. Now they expect us to feel warm and fuzzy because they throw pennies to poor people. Exxon made $40.6 billion in profit in 2007. They are the world’s most profitable company.

If ExxonMobil really understood Corporate Social Responsibility, they would be the biggest investor in clean renewable energy. Instead their CEO disputes the scientific basis of climate change and publicly reminds us that they are an “oil company, not an energy company.” So their investments are going into lobbying for more oil leases to drill for American oil they can sell to the highest Asian bidder. And to find better ways to extract oil that, after all, nature created.

How does that sound to you? To me it sounds like a very weak justification to pursue toxic self-interest. It has a name. It’s called “negative innovation,” which are improvements in products that destroy the planet, exploit people and eat our future. Let’s see…is there a connection? Global warming, world wide inflation, growing extreme wealth of middle eastern tyrants and Russia and the oil industry. And I’m supposed to feel good about Exxon’s Corporate Responsibility? Isn’t it ironic that rising temperatures are actually causing a rise of mosquito-born tropical diseases even as Exxon buys mosquito nets? (It’s like tobacco companies selling breath inhalers.)

This is all a tragedy. A failure of ethical vision. What’s crazy is that there is big money to be made by creating clean renewable energy (Just ask T. Boone Pickens, PickensPlan.com). And for Exxon to only dabble in it while they increase shareholder dividends is strategically stupid. If Exxon wanted me to feel better about taking a day’s work worth of income from my daughter every time she fills her tank, it would come from knowing they are using her money to create a healthy, sustainable, non fossil-fuel energy future. But they don’t care. Not really.

So here’s what I tell business leaders. Any time we justify the suffering of others as necessary or inevitable, we become the cause of that suffering.

Our worldwide oil economy will likely cause immense suffering in forms of wars, poverty, pollution, climate caused natural disaster, and other unanticipated tragedies. For those who are presently prospering from oil not to take the lead in solving the catastrophic problems caused by it is…well you know what it is.

So, Exxon don’t try to make it something different through public relations. Indeed, it is what it is.

Day-pay in a tank.

(There is quite a conversation already going on this blog. To check out what others have said, visit American Dream Project.)

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Comment by Erle Frayne Argonza on August 27, 2008 at 7:56pm
Hi Will! Hmmm $750 T is not even a 'drop in the bucket of Exxon's CSR funds (often CSR constitute just 1% of revenues or retained earnings). Too pathetic indeed a 'blood money' for all the collective guilt of companies that produce toxic products and for paying the damages they've done to people, livelihoods (such as an oil spill in Guimaras of Central Philippines that destroyed livelihoods for 1 year), and Mother Earth.

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