Despite the inspiring discourse and ESG claims, the corporate world is not up to its responsibilities
The world is rightly worried about the pandemic, as it is causing millions of deaths and suffering for hundreds of millions. But it is so obvious that, instead of richer countries fighting to grab the first vaccines, and the big pharma prioritizing patents, a collaborative effort to face what clearly is a global issue would save many lives, and indeed not only reduce suffering but also stimulate the economy. There was a time when challenges were faced at the village level, then they became national issues, but nowadays the world is facing obvious global challenges, and the pandemic is just one of them. We need corporations to update their priorities.
The G20 meetings are interesting, and the Davos events certainly brilliant – they remind me of the ancient Versailles and Vienna gatherings – but a key agent of change are the global corporations. Many economists have brought to our attention the huge power of the asset management industry. They are key deciders on where the money goes. Better said, they control the algorithms. An editorial from The Guardian sounds realistic: “Computers run investment portfolios offering cheap ‘exchange-traded funds’ that automatically track indices of shares and bonds. This has been so successful that the big three – US firms BlackRock, Vanguard and State Street – now manage $19 trillion dollars in assets, roughly a tenth of the world’s quoted securities… Markets are supposed to allocate capital efficiently. They plainly do not. Society is experiencing inequality and financial instability. Minsky contended that market behavior had to be constrained to ensure the ‘economic underpinnings of democracy’. His advice seems truer today than ever.”1
As of 2022, BlackRock manages over $10 trillion dollars, while the budget of the US government is around $6 trillion dollars, with variations depending on the whim of a few senators and their corporate links. The $19 trillion dollar figure mentioned above can be compared to the US GDP of $21 trillion dollars. A great part of the US budget itself will be directed according to corporate interests. Frédéric Pierucci, an ex-executive for the energy giant Alstom, published an important book, The American Trap, on how the big corporations and politics work, in his area of expertise: “whoever occupies the seat of President of the United States, a democrat or republican, charismatic or detestable, the administration in Washington will always respond to the interests of the same group of industrials: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Exxon Mobil, Halliburton, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, GE, Bechtel, United Technologies, among others.” And the financial giants manage the financial assets of all of them. Money does make the world go around.
The world is presently aware of the catastrophic management of global environment issues, the explosive inequality, the absurd growth of fortunes at the very top and the erosion of democracy. The corporate world, deeply involved in these disasters, is claiming it is changing the rules. An elite of 130 banks published their key guidelines in 2019. UN Secretary-General António Guterres commented that “the UN Principles for Responsible Banking are a guide for the global banking industry to respond to, drive and benefit from a sustainable development economy. The Principles create the accountability that can realize responsibility, and the ambition that can drive action.”2
The adopted guidelines are positive, but not real. We do need banking to “contribute to individuals’ and society’s goals”, and be “transparent and accountable,” but they are the channels for the corporations to put their money in tax havens, not to speak of the illegal money transactions, and the astounding profits of the asset management corporations. The contrast between discourse and practice is glaring.
Also in September 2019, 181 of the world’s largest corporations signed a letter of agreement, redefining their goals and formally leaving behind their decades-long creed to increase the wealth of their shareholders without care for the systemic consequences, comfortably qualified as “externalities.” The text, agreed upon and disclosed by the BRT (Business Roundtable), is short; basically five paragraphs. Below is the original text, updated on the 6th September 2019.3
While each of our individual companies serves its own corporate purpose, we share a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders. We commit to:
- Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.
- Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.
- Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions.
- Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.
- Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders. Each of our stakeholders is essential. We commit to deliver value to all of them, for the future success of our companies, our communities and our country.
Apparently, this is not deeply revolutionary, just plain good sense. But after 40 years of corporations hiding behind highly convenient theories like that of Milton Friedman’s “The business of business is business,” entirely dedicated to bringing wealth to their shareholders, this letter calls attention. The large conglomerates have decided to take a turn. Or so they say.
According to the WHO, “Tobacco kills more than 8 million people each year. More than 7 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use, while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke. Over 80% of the world’s 1.3 billion tobacco users live in low and middle-income countries.”4 Well, we know, they are the bad guys. But also, “ambient air pollution accounts for an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, acute and chronic respiratory diseases. Around 99% of the world’s population live in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits.” Didn’t Volkswagen know about air pollution when tinkering with their vehicles emissions? With the scandal, we learned that other corporations do not behave much differently.
Take obesity, a fast-expanding tragedy. “According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 36.5 percent of all adults and around 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States have obesity… Obesity is associated with higher healthcare costs and a lower quality of life, as well as disability and premature mortality. Currently, obesity contributes to more than 5 million deaths each year, globally.”5 We all know about the impact of SSBs (Sugar Sweetened Beverages), ultra-processed food and unhealthy food promoted by so many corporations. Are we supposed to read the small letters on the supermarket shelves? Do they not know how to make healthy food?
The chemical corporations follow similar short-term profit maximization. “There are an estimated 350,000 chemicals (or mixtures of chemicals) on the global market. Nearly 70,000 have been registered in the past decade… A compelling reason to consider total chemical production as a control variable is that it exposes the vexing supply side issue of the ‘lock-in’ effect, where economic, technical, political, and bureaucratic inertia maintain production despite imperatives for reduction.”6 The impact on climate, on toxic chemicals in our food and so many other challenges are quite evident, since only a small part of the new chemicals are submitted to adequate toxicity analysis. Contaminated water is responsible for 3.6 million deaths per year, according to the WHO.
The corporations contributing to this tragedy – we have more than 20 million deaths a year in the areas mentioned above, compared with the roughly 6 million Covid-19 deaths as of writing this paper – are perfectly aware of the impacts of the products they spread, but spend huge sums simply to deny responsibility. Most of them are signatories of ESG principles. Remember how long it took to take lead out of our gas tank? Or the Teflon battles? Or how long the tobacco industry managed to hide the fact they knew smoking was linked to cancer?
The giant banks operating in Brazil pay for numerous TV campaigns stating that the population should learn how to manage their finances, as if it was a problem of customers’ education. How do you manage finance in the face of disinformation campaigns and when credit card interest rates reach 349% a year, to mention the most scandalous figure? John Naughton brings the key issue of who is responsible: “It’s what oil companies came up with when they invented the idea of the ‘carbon footprint’ – i.e. your footprint on the biosphere, not theirs. It’s the displacement of responsibility strategy: since it’s a free country, nobody’s forcing you to do the thing that’s bad for you. Childhood obesity is the responsibility of the child or of his or her parents. Alcoholism happens because you don’t ‘drink responsibly’. Radicalization of the mass shooter is not YouTube’s responsibility. It’s always your fault, not that of the manufacturer of the addictive product.”7
It certainly is also a question of divided responsibility. We should draw a line on our private shopping behavior, government should provide basic social services with universal access and ensure regulation, but the fact is that with big-corporation take-over on politics and the impressive information control modern algorithms allow them – Shoshana Zuboff, in her The Age of Surveillance Capitalism does not exaggerate – we are all in the hands of irresponsible money-making machine managers. If corporations do not change, the destructive trends will continue. Sweetening the pill by means of TV campaigns with soft-spoken messages will not solve the real issues. Neither will the repeated ‘commitments,’ ‘guidelines’ and pushing-over of responsibility.
How does Brazil fare in these circumstances? Well, we have 31% youth unemployment, 47% of young people want to leave the country, and the Amazon is melting down. And we have Covid, of course, and a President who is against vaccination. But banking profits are booming.
1 The Guardian: Editorial – March 21, 2021 – The Guardian view on finance failures: manmade errors amplified by machines.
2 Banking Principles – UNEP – Sept. 23, 2019 – Assets 47tri$. The Principles for Responsible Banking – See also: UNEPFI.
3 Released: August 19, 2019. Updated with New Signatures: September 6, 2019.
4 WHO – Deaths from smoking – Access July 26, 2021.
5 Jonathan W. Raymond – Medical News Today, November 11, 2021.
6 Environmental Science and Technology – January 18, 2022 Outside the Safe Operating Space of the Planetary Boundary for Novel Entities – Environmental Science & Technology (acs.org).
7 John Naughton – As a new Year Dawns – Guardian, 1 Jan. 2022 – “We underestimated the cunning and ruthlessness of corporations, the feebleness of governments and the fact that many of our fellow humans were content to be passive couch potatoes”.