New Internationalist

The big debate: reform or revolution?

Issue 407

Jonathon Porritt has pioneered a strategy of working with leading corporations to help them become more socially and environmentally responsible. As chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, he is a principal adviser to the British Government. He sets out his vision for change in a recent book: Capitalism as if the World Matters.

Claire Fauset is part of a growing movement of people taking direct action to resist the corporations they see as standing in the way of a transition towards a fair, low-carbon future. She recently published ‘What’s Wrong with Corporate Social Responsibility?’ for Corporate Watch.

*NI* put the two of them together in a room, sat back, and watched the sparks fly.

JP You imply in your report that there is nothing that companies can do voluntarily to make a difference in this world, that regulation is the only way to bring about corporate change, that companies will always do the least that they can in order to prioritize the interests of shareholders and therefore will never give priority to other stakeholders. I think the evidence speaks strongly against that.

You quote only the bad stories (which are bad). There is a sense that you are demonizing companies. But when you peel away what that means, you are really demonizing the people who work for them. If I have learned anything from my 15 years working with companies it is that people care passionately about these issues and believe that if they get their company responding they are making a very big contribution.

CF I do think that the aim of Corporate Responsibility (CR) is to do the minimum possible, and is quite explicitly about avoiding regulation. It tries to convince people that their best way of getting change is as a consumer, buying things and voting with their till receipts. That is fundamentally the opposite of democracy. It is disempowering.

JP Aren’t you in danger of patronizing most people? I don’t think people have been seduced into this passive, consumerist mindset. I think this is where we have just lurched out of indifference, ignorance, laziness… Some companies are involved in CR to try and ward off regulation, no question about that. But some companies would welcome increased regulation. Not perhaps for reasons that you would like, but they want to see off the free-riders, the cowboys, the companies that do not give a shit about all this stuff.

CF They are for the kind of regulation that benefits them the most, they’re fishing for market-based mechanisms…

JP That’s a different story.

Market-based mechanisms can have teeth. And they are introduced by governments. They come with the same amount of legitimacy as another piece of regulation. I don’t understand the difference.

CF The problem is that those who can pay benefit most from the market – for example with carbon trading, those who can pay for carbon emissions can emit more. There is no principle of justice or equality behind it.

JP But that depends on how you design your market instrument. Governments can design market instruments so they actually affect the better-off people more than the less well-off people. If they want to!

CF Exactly! I am not saying that government is much different from the corporate sector…

JP Now we are getting down to it! You can’t say that! (laughs)

CF What I mean is that the ideology is essentially the same. It is a neoliberal free-market ideology.

JP Yes. Temporarily. You and I are going to agree totally about this. It appalls me how governments around the world have fallen in with this corporatist ideology. It’s a disgraceful abnegation of their responsibility…

CF Exactly. But we can’t change this through reform, through engaging with governments and corporations. Social change doesn’t happen as a result of parliamentary decisions. You have to have a process that devolves power to people rather than supports the existing power structures.

JP But if one gets to the state of mind where you say that nobody can ever trust government and politicians again, then we are stuffed. What are we meant to do? Make it all happen ourselves?

CF Well, yes! Increasing the number of people working on the inside is not going to create change. The most effective thing is to be out there talking to people, increasing mistrust of corporations and government, making people angry, making people want to take action.

JP The most effective thing would be to do both. A sort of pincer effect on government and on business.

CF But there are plenty of people working on the inside…

JP Well there are now. There never used to be, don’t forget.

Capitalism sucks up the collective genius around it into its own project. That is what has happened to the Green movement

CF But that is part of the problem. The really good people get trained up in sustainable development, then go and work for the corporations and get sucked into the machine that grinds slowly along. Capitalism sucks up the collective genius around it into its own project. That is what has happened to the green movement.

JP Do you think the Green NGOs like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have just been completely co-opted?

CF Significantly co-opted. I think that CR has been very effective in getting them into the boardroom instead of out on the streets, of isolating the radicals, cultivating the idealists into becoming realists, and then co-opting them into engaging so that the only change you can get is incremental. It is not a shift in the business model. I think that a lot of people working on the outside feel sold out by the people on the inside.

JP You are presenting this as an either/or. I have always said that direct action is a fundamental part of this movement for change. We need more of it, not less. But I think you are saying to me I should prioritize my time differently. I am often criticized for selling out. But I am doing what I believe works.

CF But don’t you think that you are increasing corporations’ legitimacy, whereas we are working to destroy their legitimacy?

JP Well I don’t want to destroy companies’ legitimacy. We are going to need them, to ensure that wealth creators comply with the laws, have a proper relationship with government, consumers, and so on. I want to transform the way in which government mandates their legitimacy.

CF It’s not government that gives legitimacy, it is people.

JP Well, we give legitimacy to companies through what we purchase. But with our vote, theoretically, we empower governments to regulate the structure of the economy. That’s the bit that has gone terribly wrong. Governments are failing massively in their duty.

CF But you are assuming that corporations are wealth creators and not wealth concentrators.

JP Well, they are both.

CF Wealth exists within society, within the planet. To assume that the only way of distributing goods and services to meet people’s needs is through capitalism – that you need the profit motive to do that – ignores the idea that you could have any other system.

JP Don’t we need markets to deliver goods and services?

CF I believe that a more co-operative system could meet people’s needs in a more egalitarian way. We need to be putting our energy into thinking about the principles by which our society should be organized. The idea that is coming strongly through the media and through CR is that you don’t have to think about these things – corporations share your values and your principles. And that really frustrates efforts to empower people.

JP You are implying a level of political awareness on the part of these companies that is miles from what I have discovered! It is with great difficulty that I can get any of these companies to talk about capitalism. Most of what they are doing is being done by default.

CF It’s not that I think there’s some secret club somewhere…!

JP Maybe there is! (laughs)

CF But it is a strategy that evolves. Shell found CR to be a very effective mechanism and then it was adopted by other companies. Compare Shell to McLibel. McDonald’s took out the biggest law suit in UK legal history against a couple of random people and their leaflets. But Shell ran a million-pound PR campaign: ‘get people to engage’, ‘we want to hear’, ‘say whatever you want to about us’. Which was the most successful strategy? This is how CR evolved. I don’t think that somebody sat down and wrote the whole project. Well, maybe the PR people! (laughs)

I don’t want to destroy companies’ legitimacy. We are going to need them

JP OK, but follow that logic through. Just say that all the different campaigns against Nestlé (which I think have actually been pretty effective), had such a profound impact that the company decided to completely change its product portfolio – to get rid of formula milk. Would you be satisfied with that? Or would you say that the whole company has to cease to exist because you just don’t want multinationals in the world?

CF In that multinationals exist to concentrate wealth and power – no, they have no place in a just world. The structure is the problem, and so we need to find alternative ways of structuring things.

JP Every single survey tells you that, absolutely, people care about sweatshops and worry that their purchases might be adding to the exploitation of people elsewhere in the world. Does that mean that they change the way they buy clothes? A little bit. Does it mean that they want to restructure the whole clothes industry in the Western world? Not on your bloody life!

CF People do behave differently as consumers than they do as citizens. But climate change is a crux point at which we have to do things right or we are fucked. It requires an awful lot of people agitating, not just adjusting to the structures that exist.

JP The difficulty is persuading government to be more proactive. If you look at the speeches that have come out of the UK Government, we have got this huge disconnect between a rhetorical understanding of what the problem is and a policy delivery process which is pathetically inadequate.

But here’s a question for you: the Business Environment Programme has a ‘corporate leaders group’ made up of the chief execs of 14 companies. Over the last two years it has been lobbying government to increase regulation to enable those companies to do a better job on climate change. This is the first time I know of a group of leading companies saying to government: you are failing in your job, which is to create markets, or structure markets so that wealth creators – which is what I like to call them, rather than pernicious parasites on the face of the earth…

CF Wealth concentrators!

JP (laughs) …so that business can get on and do a better job for the planet. Now I expect that you are going to say that this is just bullshit, this initiative is worthless.

CF I don’t know, but I suspect that it is. Because these companies aren’t in any way able to act altruistically. They have to be pursuing the best interests of their corporation, which I don’t think is ever going to be in the best interest of society.

JP But eventually it must be.

CF Why?

JP Because there is no difference between the stakeholders of a company, including its shareholders, and society. Ultimately companies cannot work in societies that are imploding. They can’t make money!

CF They can work in societies that are stable and also oppressive, unjust and unsustainable.

JP For a while. But that won’t last long. The interests of society and the interests of corporations must converge eventually. I think you have to allow the oil, transport and aviation companies the possibility of a journey. Nobody has it in their power to stop them doing what they do because people want to buy what they produce. When someone goes and fills up their car – who actually is responsible for those emissions? I don’t think it is the oil company, I think it is the person who owns the car and goes and fills it up with petrol. The need to drastically reduce CO2 emissions is a new reality for many companies. We cannot just go after them! So I am interested in the efforts that BP and Shell are making towards alternative energy.

CF I think partly what they are relying on is that they will get the patent on something that is fundamental to the way that society is organized in the future, so that they will have a monopoly on that system of producing energy.

JP And there is a problem in that?

CF Yes! Our future sustainability is being ransomed out to corporations now.

JP But where else would research come from? If governments are not going to fund programmes for cutting-edge technologies then we have to rely on the big companies to do it.

CF But companies are also relying on consumption being as great in the future. And that is not sustainable. We do not have the renewable resources to keep consuming the amount we are now.

JP What if we did have enough renewable energy for nine billion people to consume at current levels with no damage to the physical environment?

CF Then they would have to go without food and water. We are hitting limits to growth in so many areas! That is one of the fundamental problems with capitalism. It relies on the increased consumption of all these resources. The forests and the fisheries and all the other renewable resources are running out, it is not just about carbon dioxide.

JP I couldn’t agree more. Not a bad point to end on!

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on The big debate: reform or revolution?

Leave your comment