BERKELEY, Calif. -- In a recent gesture of "transparency," Ford Motor Company reported that it was responsible for releasing approximately 400 million metric tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases annually, which amounts to a whopping 1 to 2 percent of all man-made emissions. Although the United States has grown inured to public confessions from our political and religious leaders, radical acts of disclosure from the private sector are new. When auto makers and oil companies start spouting discourses on "sustainability, " should we forgive them their histories of environmental misdeeds?
Though it may be heartening to see corporate giants embrace a platform of social responsibility and accountability, it is also troubling. Public contrition may boost public relations, but it certainly does not guarantee reform.
Ford's groundbreaking disclosure about the emissions was released as part of its second Corporate Citizenship Report, an expanded annual report that dares to grapple with the company's Achilles's heels -- climate change, human rights and the Firestone recall. In looking beyond economic indicators to qualitative assessments of its performance, Ford adhered to guidelines issued by the Global Reporting Initiative, an offshoot of the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies. Following the lead of The Body Shop, Skandia, a financial services firm, and Shell, which were the first companies to produce annual reports addressing a wide range of social issues, more than 100 other major companies have implemented the Global Reporting Initiative guidelines for voluntary disclosure.
Ford's Corporate Citizenship Report not only provides a good example of transparency -- tackling difficult issues, incorporating outside perspectives, striving for honesty even at the expense of looking bad -- but it sets out to make the case for transparency itself. In a statement included in the report, Chairman of the Board Bill Ford advocates using openness, honesty and exchange with external stakeholders to evaluate how a company is evolving to meet society's expanding expectations.
"It's not enough to see corporate citizenship as simply another feature that adds value," Bill Ford writes in the report. "This view holds that, everything else being equal, people will buy from, work for, or invest in the company with the best set of social values. While the assumption is true, it undersells the potential. Forward-thinking, responsible behavior should enhance all of the things that add value for stakeholders, not just be an addition to them."
This compelling defense of a "triple bottom line" of social, environmental and economic sustainability -- from a company with a history of social and environmental exploitation -- leaves me unnerved. The activists who have been urging corporations to accept a greater mantle of social responsibility could not have put the argument better. Despite this impressive display of liberal logic, it is difficult to believe Ford.
In the report, Ford announced its voluntary commitment to reduce sport utility vehicle emissions by 25 percent by 2005 and pledged to put a gas-electric hybrid version of the Ford Escape on the market by 2003. But Ford does not support the Kyoto protocols, nor does Ford support pending legislation that would impose stricter emissions standards on sport utility vehicles.
According to Kevin Sweeney, a veteran activist and environmental consultant to Ford, "The question is really about the pace of change. How fast is fast enough? How does a company prove whether it is on the path of change? Ford could commit tonight to change every single product over to hybrids, but it would take 10 years to implement that kind of change."
After talking to Sweeney, I gathered that Bill Ford's statement was sincere. "Henry Ford's great grandson is a real conservationist," Sweeney said.
Having a real conservationist as the chairman of the board, however, does not make a company green. It's a good starting point, but how quickly the company can respond to its own self-recriminations will determine how we judge it eventually.
Some skeptics, however, maintain that transparency is purely a marketing ploy, a skillful manipulation.
"I would question any kind of commitments by Ford," says Amit Srivastava of CorpWatch, a San Francisco-based group that fights corporate globalization. "Human rights and corporate profits cannot coexist. Making tons of money is not compatible with protecting our environment."
Last year, CorpWatch presented a Greenwash Award to Ford -- an ironic "award" meant to draw attention to the company's hypocrisy in marketing itself as environmentally concerned while continuing to manufacture notoriously gas-guzzling automobiles.
"We expect this kind of doublespeak from large companies like Ford, "Srivastava said in an interview. "They have a ton of money to greenwash their image. Oil companies -- like Chevron, Shell -- they spend millions of dollars on (public relations) saying how green they are, but when it comes to their practices, it doesn't mean anything."
It is difficult to accept transparency at face value if you believe corporate profitability and social responsibility are mutually exclusive.
I want to believe that these goals are compatible, but I can't escape a basic mistrust of corporations.
Whom, precisely, do people distrust when we distrust corporations? Is it the CEO, the Board of Directors, the shareholders or some other entity? When we point our fingers at corporations, we are pointing at something amorphous.
In 1886, the courts granted corporations the same rights as a "natural person." Although corporations have gained tremendous power through this legal ruling, they have not gained actual personhood. When we blame or distrust a corporation itself, we are trying to relate in a human way to a mysterious entity that can only be understood through emblems and logos, market share and investor returns. The best we can do is tarnish a brand.
Instead, we need to address individuals. Then we can pressure corporations to assume not only the rights but the responsibilities of a natural person, as well. Tell those individuals who make corporations animate to do more than greenwash their image with pledges of transparency. Give us meaningful, positive action that we can see, not just see through.
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