Expecting Corporate Kindness

By Andrew Savitz

The Boston Globe • July 25, 2006

As the Media hype around Al Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, begins to fade, the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? debuts, expanding the theme that business as usual can be hazardous to your planet.

The murder mystery parody investigates General Motors' 2003 cancellation of the EV1, its electric car, and the automotive industry's strangulation of the zero-emission initiative. The Detroit News describes the film as "depressing and hugely important," giving its struggling hometown industry a thumb in the eye rather than two thumbs up.

Villainous profiteering is a hot Hollywood trend. Last year, greedy corporations hijacked American foreign policy in Syriana, pharmaceutical companies committed murder to protect their profits in The Constant Gardener, and cigarette salesmen pushed their wares on children in Thank You for Smoking. This fall, the theatrical release of Fast Food Nation is bound to cause migraines for McDonald's, Wendy's, and the rest of the food-flipping chains. Even the children's films "Over the Hedge" and "Ice Age 2" wag their fingers at business for furthering urban sprawl and global warming.

Don't blame liberal scriptwriters or producers. Movies reflect popular attitudes more than they shape them, and Americans appear more concerned about getting hosed by corporations than at any time since the Great Depression. The Enron collapse may have sparked the current firestorm, but the expectation that corporations must work for society as well as for their shareholders has grown dramatically since Ralph Nader and Rachel Carson helped shift the onus of consumer and environmental protection from government to business in the 1960s.

Corporations are now expected to play leading roles in promoting diversity, eradicating poverty, protecting public health, eliminating child labor, developing communities, ensuring privacy, and upholding human rights. And they must govern not just themselves, but also take responsibility for the behavior of companies up and down their supply chains.

Call it the age of accountability. Corporations must step up their performance on environmental and social measures along with financial ones — posting results according to the so-called "Triple Bottom Line." Today's smartest companies are embracing these expectations and turning them to their advantage.

DuPont has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent since 1991, saving an estimated $2 billion in the process. General Electric is doubling its investment in clean technologies, having already seen a fourfold growth in its wind power business. Toyota is riding the hot-selling hybrid Prius on its way to becoming the number one automaker in the world. And PepsiCo's commitment to diversity is central to its business strategy of developing and selling new products in growing markets, resulting in increased sales of over $100 million. (Full disclosure: I have worked with PepsiCo to shape its responsibility programs.) Granted, not all companies have seen the business logic behind corporate responsibility. Exxon continues to thumb its nose at scientific facts regarding climate change, resisting pressure not only from Greenpeace but increasingly from the insurance industry, banks, and anyone else with a stake in a stable climate. But Exxon is fast becoming the exception.

By finding the intersection between their business interests and those of society and the environment, responsible companies can align their good with the common good and increase their chances of long-term success. Not so incidentally, they'll also avoid playing the role of the bad guy in next year's topical thriller.

Andrew Savitz is author of The Triple Bottom Line: How the Best Run Companies Are Achieving Economic, Social and Environmental Success — and How You Can Too.





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