New Internationalist

Bad company

I’m just putting the finishing touches onto the next issue of the NI – ‘Corporate Responsibility Unmasked’. It investigates the current craze for multinationals to project images of themselves as caring, sharing, green and clean. Unsurprisingly, I’ve come to the conclusion that when you peel away the spray-on conscience, big business is just as power-hungry and profit-obsessed as ever.

So when my colleague Troth told me that she and other local horse-riders and ramblers had just lost a case that BMW had brought to the Magistrate’s Court over local people’s right to use an ancient bridleway, I thought I’d look into whether BMW claims to be a ‘socially responsible’ company.

As I suspected, I found the usual rhetoric on BMW’s website (, laughable in light of this court case:

‘Large manufacturing organisations exert considerable influence over the communities they exist in… Plant Oxford wishes to be seen as a good neighbour to its surrounding community, businesses and stakeholders. To this end the plant works with a number of local organisations in long-term partnerships… Being a good neighbour also means minimising the impact of the plant’s activities on the surrounding environment.
The factory is continually working towards finding new ways of reducing the number of road-miles travelled and avoiding contributing to road traffic with its green travel plan.’

We just can’t put up with this nonsense anymore. BMW have shown their true colours. By simultaneously wooing and threatening the local council (desperate not to lose a major local employer), the police (to whom they have donated a free Mini ‘to reduce crime, disorder and anti-social behaviour by giving team members increased access to all parts of Oxford in a car built in the city’) and local MP Andrew Smith, they seem to have persuaded enough powerful local players onto their side to trample unconcernedly over the needs of residents.

To add insult to injury, not only have locals lost the right to use a path that’s been public since Roman times, but the charities representing them have been slapped with a £50,000 fine and been given a month to pay!

If BMW has a genuinely responsible bone in its corporate body, it will cancel the fine, which is a drop in the ocean to a huge multinational but an impossibly large sum for a few locals and two charities to raise.

This is a perfect example of the fundamental problem with ‘Corporate Responsibility’: it is voluntary, and therefore unenforced. If governments won’t regulate companies’ behaviour and balance the interests of business with the interests of communities, then we’ll have to find ways of doing it ourselves. There should be consequences for businesses who benefit from claiming to be good corporate citizens, whilst behaving in a blatantly hypocritical fashion.

In this case, if BMW continues to press residents to cough up fifty grand for trying to defend a local right-of-way, then it’s time it gave up its claims to be a ‘good neighbour’, and all of us who live in its shadow should be ready to make sure it does.

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  1. #1 Jessica Svedberg 20 Nov 07

    response to Bad Company

    During my own experience working for a large multinational, I found the budget infinite when it came to 'golf days', corporate boxes and lavish farewell parties. When given the task to report in our national publication we of course featured articles mainly on the few charity events we'd hosted during the year.

    I totally agree Jess, it is yet just another marketing ploy to make consumers feel less guilty about buying their products, make staff feel ok about working for them because you can justify it, OK they are a big business but at least they support charity x, y, z. It is very clever but delve a little deeper as you have done and I think sadly we will find that not much has changed.

    More positive is the move by some organisations towards triple bottom line reporting. Until this changes from being voluntary to compulsory and the results of TBL reports are valued by society how can we expect change?

    The concept of TBL demands that a company's responsibility be to 'stakeholders' rather than shareholders. In this case, 'stakeholders' refers to anyone who is influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the actions of the firm. According to the stakeholder theory, the business entity should be used as a vehicle for coordinating stakeholder interests, instead of maximising shareholder(owner) profit.

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