Corporations as Tools for Social Change

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Solar Panels

Credit: Creative Commons/Intel Free Press.

In the late 1970s I read a fascinating article in the New York Times regarding the Mobil Oil Corporation. According to the Times, several African-American leaders purchased small positions in the company. Their ownership of Mobil Oil stock gave them the right to lobby for change.
Their target was South Africa. These black leaders began speaking at general shareholder meetings of the corporation. They also lobbied corporate officers. They had two goals in mind. The first was to integrate the dining facility in the South African plant. The second was to achieve equal pay for equal work. They achieved both goals. Their victory was an important symbol of change in the anti-apartheid movement.
At about the same time Leon Sullivan, an African-American minister in Philadelphia, came onto the scene. Reverend Sullivan was a board member of the General Motors Corporation. In the late 1970s he devised a set of principles requiring corporations with divisions in South Africa to treat all employees fairly. If the company violated the Sullivan Principles, American corporations were to cease doing business with them. Reverend Sullivan worked tirelessly to have these principles adopted and was able to achieve some notable successes.
Again, at about the same time, the anti-apartheid disinvestment campaign emerged. This movement required pension funds and college endowments to sell their equity holdings in companies with operations in South Africa. Students lobbied and protested boards of trustees in many universities to achieve these goals. Anti-apartheid activists made similar demands of state and local pension funds.
The efforts outlined above gained considerable momentum as the 1980s progressed. It is interesting that the South African government lifted the ban on the African National Congress in 1990. The government also released Nelson Mandela from prison in the same year. Soon thereafter the government repealed the apartheid legislation, and in 1994 Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk negotiated a transition of political power through the establishment of multiracial elections. All these important gains were achieved without the help of the Reagan administration which refused to cooperate in isolating South Africa economically. Instead corporate actions played a leading role in producing the change.
Corporations can also provide important tools for social change with the products they make. In the crucial battle to safely manage global climate change, corporations will play the leading role.
The role of governments in meeting this challenge, though important, exists at the margins. Government policy can support research, it can help startups with important new technology survive the difficult early years by buying their products, and it can provide tax incentives for the purchase of alternative energy systems. Regulatory requirements to increase automobile miles per gallon and the recent limits the EPA placed on future emissions from coal-fired plants have also been helpful. A tax on carbon would make an important contribution in this fight.
Unfortunately, reducing carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere in any significant way will require nothing less than an energy revolution. The United States Energy Information Administration estimates global energy consumption will increase by 56 percent between now and 2040. Currently solar and wind power generate about 2 percent of the world’s energy. The problem is therefore twofold: to dramatically increase the percentage of energy produced from nonpolluting sources and to meet increased global demand for energy from these nonpolluting sources. This challenge can only be met if trillions of dollars of private capital are invested in companies that produce products relating to alternative energy sources and energy conservation. It’s a sad irony that global capitalism bears much of the blame for the climate change problem and yet it must be relied on if the problem is to be solved.
The idea of corporations coming to the rescue to save the environment is not one that many Tikkun readers are comfortable with. Most see corporations and global capitalism as the enemy, as the major cause of the climate change problem. There is much truth to this position.
Like it or not, however, the world will be forced to rely on alternative energy corporations and private capital to both lead and fund the energy revolution that must come if we are to manage the climate change problem. There is one additional point for Tikkun readers to consider. Like human personalities, corporations differ. Corporate cultures can be predatory and destructive to the social good, and they can also be socially responsible. In addition, a corporation that stands accused of unethical behavior in one arena can still promote substantive positive change in another.
Take, for example, the chipmaker Intel Corporation. While Intel has been criticized for opposing efforts at unionization and while it is currently facing a boycott by activists who object to its decision to set up a factory on illegally seized Palestinian land, it has a long history of commitment to the environment, a philosophy that began with founder Gordon Moore. This commitment is seen in the development of energy-efficient products and the program to reduce their environmental footprint. This latter effort includes a focus on conservation, renewable energy, and energy efficient building design.
Intel takes climate change seriously. The company has dramatically reduced its carbon footprint by constructing solar installations at eighteen plants around the world. They are also the largest corporate purchaser of green power. These two programs accounted for 100 percent of their energy use in 2013.
The company has similar programs for sustainable water management and recycling. Employee compensation is tied to achieving these environmental goals. As far as environmental sensitivity goes, there are many Intels operating in the global capitalist system. Because people define corporate cultures, the number of environmentally responsible companies will only increase as public awareness of this dangerous problem deepens and grows.
In the situations involving the Mobil Oil and General Motors that I discussed above, individuals played an important role in determining corporate behavior. In the anti-apartheid struggle, individuals operated as a social movement to pressure corporations to play a constructive role in bringing social justice to South Africa. In the case of climate change, individuals vote with their pocketbooks. They enable corporations to address this issue with their products by investing in them. As a result, in the final analysis, corporations are nothing more than tools for achieving social change. If we want to use them to make the world a better place, it is up to us to act in ways that influence their behavior in a positive direction.
Rick Herrick’s newest book is a novel entitled A Man Called Jesus.