Bayer and the UN Global Compact

How and Why a Major Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company "Bluewashes" its Image

Bayer considers itself a "founding member" of the UN Global Compact, but its dedication to the Compact's nine human rights and environmental principles should be seen in the context of an extremely controversial corporate history. Some of that history is outlined in this article by Philipp Mimkes of the Coalition Against Bayer Dangers (CBG). CBG has found that Bayer has been using its "membership" in the Compact to deflect criticism by watchdog groups, without addressing the substance of the criticism. Bayer's use of the Global Compact is a classic case of "bluewash" -- using the good reputation of the United Nations to present a corporate humanitarian image without a commitment to changing real-world behavior.


Why Bayer's Corporate Image May Need a Face Lift

When most of us hear the brand name "Bayer" we think of aspirin. But Bayer AG, based in Leverkusen, Germany is a major producer of chemicals, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and plastics. The company employs 120,000 people worldwide and its annual sales are some $28 billion. The U.S. is its largest market, and the company has facilities in Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, India, Thailand, China, Japan and many European countries. It is also a founding member of the UN's Global Compact, a partnership between the United Nations and big business. Bayer has signed on to nine voluntary, non-binding human rights and environmental principles. In exchange for the use of the UN name and logo, a range of UN programs hope to receive funding from giant corporations.

A Few of Bayer's Corporate Crimes

Bayer has a long history of giving profits precedence over human rights and environmental concerns. During the First World War the company invented Chemical Warfare ("moisture gas") and built up a "School for Chemical Warfare." Thirty years later Bayer was part of the conglomerate IG Farben, which worked closely with the Third Reich. IG Farben exploited several hundred thousand slave workers at their plant in Auschwitz. It also took over companies throughout Europe and used human guinea pigs for pharmaceutical research. IG Farbens subsidiary Degesch manufactured Zyklon B, the poison gas used in the gas chambers. In the late 1930's organophosphates (sarine, tabun) were introduced, after the war marketed by Bayer as pesticides (E 605, Folidol, Nemacur, Fenthion). IG Farbens managers were convicted as war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials. After the war Farben was broken up into BASF, Bayer and Hoechst (now called Aventis), and the three firms still cooperate closely and exert a large influence on German and European politics.

Corporate Lobbying

Bayer also leverages its economic clout in the political arena. Since the 1920's the company has financed German political parties and several Bayer managers became ministers in German governments. Today, Bayer is a member of hundreds of lobby groups tackling 'trade barriers' like environmental or health and safety laws. The European Round Table of Industrialists effectively writes big chunks of EU corporate legislation. Bayer also helped set up the Transatlantic Business Dialogue, where European and US multinationals work together to influence policy in the direction of greater liberalization and deregulation. Other lobby groups that Bayer takes an active role in are the International Chamber of Commerce, the Global Crop Protection Federation and the German Verband der Chemischen Industrie and Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie. Bayer supported President Bush's electoral campaign with $120,000. In the last five years Bayer has handed out more than $600,000 to US politicians.

Founding Member of UN Global Compact

Two of IG Farbens successors -- Bayer and BASF -- signed onto the Global Compact at its founding meeting in July 2000. Bayer advertises its cooperation with the UN broadly, for example by printing an editorial by Secretary-General Kofi Annan in its "Sustainable Development Report." The company's website and Annual Report dedicate special section to the Global Compact.

To document its commitment to the principles of the Compact the firm touts four examples:

  • Its financial support for the Brazilian Abrinq Foundation for the Rights of the Child, which combats child labor.
  • Donations of two pharmaceutical products against sleeping sickness to the World Health Organisation.
  • Its efforts to control the spread of antibiotic resistance.
  • And company training programs for Brazilian farm workers and small farmers teaching them to handle pesticides appropriately.

In addition, Bayer provided medicines after earthquakes in India and El Salvador and donated one million dollars and fire-fighting equipment to relief organizations following the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center.

Bayer does not publish figures on its efforts to combat child labor in Brazil or its contributions to the WHO, but the Coalition Against Bayer Dangers has learned that these expenditures are less than $1 million each.

At the same time as these comparatively modest contributions, the taxes Bayer paid declined from about $1 billion in 2000 to $132 million in 2001. The tax cuts added up to more than fifty times the company's total philanthropic donations. Even assuming Bayer's donations all go to worthy causes, the public might be far better off foregoing Bayer's contributions in favor of their paying taxes.

Case Study: Initiative "Agrovida"

Bayer is the third biggest manufacturer of herbicides globally, and dominates the insecticide market. Insecticides are responsible for the majority of pesticide poisoning in countries in the Global South. The World Health Organization annually counts 2 million pesticide poisonings and estimates that the number of unreported cases is probably higher than 10 million. About 200,000 people per year die from pesticide poisonings, according to the WHO.

In 1995 Bayer promised to withdraw its most toxic pesticides, but has yet to do so, and still sells pesticides rated by the WHO as 'extremely' or 'highly' hazardous. Bayer claims that it is the responsibility of pesticide users to take precautions, despite the fact that underpaid farm laborers often do not have access to health and safety information.

To "minimise the risks to humans and the environment" Bayer in Latin America has started the initiative "Agrovida." Several thousand people in the rural farming region in southern Brazil were trained in what the company considers safe pesticide use. According to Bayer the program is geared towards sustainable farming. "The crop protection part of this strategy concentrated on the safety of the user, proper storage of crop protection products, maintenance of equipment, and careful disposal of empty containers," notes the corporation. The company admits that "the training campaign was perhaps only a small step in terms of the area it covered, but it was certainly a forward-looking step if one considers what an excellent model it could be for other regions of the world".

Training "several thousand people" might be helpful, but the fact remains that millions of farmers in countries who use Bayer's highly toxic products have never received any instructions. Bayer regularly breaches the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) code of conduct -- which it has signed -- stipulating which pesticides should only be sold to certified professionals who wear full protective clothing, and not to the general public.

Even Brazil, where Agrovida is based, Baysiston, the number one pesticide on the market, has poisoned hundreds of coffee growers, at least 30 of them fatally. The omnipresent advertising of Baysiston camouflages the risks. Many coffee growers even believe Baysiston to be a fertilizer which increases yields. The State Prosecutor who investigated the case complained about the publicity which presents the product as harmless, ignoring its potential risks. Bayer stated that the company is aware of cases of Baysiston poisoning, but that these cases were not due to lack of information but to "inexpert use alone."

Following reports in the German and Brazilian news media, the company pressured local governments and medical doctors to collude in minimizing concerns about their products risks. The firm threatened to sue communities which intended to limit the use of Baysiston. (Some municipalities went ahead with measures nevertheless.) Bayer contacted hospitals to warn them not to blame "Baysiston intoxication," or even "pesticide poisoning" on official death certificates. Later on, the company donated money to a group of doctors who would cooperate with its cover up. According to the Brazilian Agricultural Worker's Union, Baysiston poisonings continue daily but rarely appear in the records.

Case Study: Antibiotics and Resistant Bacteria

Bayer is a major producer of antibiotics, including the fluoroquinolones Cipro for humans and Baytril for animals. The effectiveness of many life-saving antibiotics is, however, waning. Health experts have deemed the rise in antibiotic resistance a public health crisis. Bayer pretends to counter the problem by starting a new initiative which "aims to work with leading health organizations and experts to help tackle the growing threat caused by bacteria rapidly developing resistance to today's antibiotics, a serious problem affecting developing countries as well as industrialized states."

Bayer also touts its membership in the Global Compact as motivation for the program. "Since Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and of his family, the project is perfectly in line with the Global Compact Initiative and its aims."

But in reality Bayer's business activities themselves are contributing to the rise of resistant bacteria: a major reason for resistence is feeding antibiotics unnecessarily to healthy farm animals to promote growth and to compensate for unsanitary conditions. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that 70% of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used in healthy pigs, poultry and cattle. Because fluoroquinolones are given to entire flocks indiscriminately in their drinking water, near-ideal conditions for speeding the development of resistance are created. The American Medical Association has publicly demanded a stop to the use of antibiotics in agriculture for healthy animals.

In October 2000, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed banning fluoroquinolone antibiotics for treating poultry. FDA scientists asserted that the antibiotic's use in chickens and turkeys has sped the development of fluoroquinolone-resistant Campylobacter. FDA estimates that Campylobacter contaminates up to 80 percent of broiler chickens in some supermarkets. The medical community strongly supported FDA's proposal, as did the public interest community. Abbott Laboratories, maker of one fluoroquinolone product for poultry, complied with FDA's proposal, withdrawing the product from the market.

However, Bayer Corporation, the sole remaining manufacturer, has demanded a formal hearing, a process that is likely to take years to complete. Physicians fear that if the ban is delayed, and Campylobacter bacteria continue building resistance at current rates, the problem may become moot.

Greenwashing and the Global Compact

Bayer has a long tradition in greenwashing: the company has actively promoted terms like "crop protection" instead of "pesticides," and has embraced "Sustainable Development" and "Responsible Care." Across the world the company promotes the idea of non-binding voluntary commitments to solve environmental problems.

In the past year journalists or concerned citizens who criticized Bayer's record, were routinely referred to Bayer's commitment in the Global Compact.

For example, the Washington DC-based Multinational Monitor magazine put Bayer in their list of "The Ten Worst Corporations of 2001." They included the company for several reasons: Bayer's behavior in the anthrax crisis, when the company tried to sell overpriced antibiotics to the American government; the withdrawal of the cholesterol-reducing drug Lipobay/Baycol which had led to the death of at least 100 patients; the suit against the watchdog group, Coalition against Bayer Dangers, for maintaining a website (the site is now used by the Campaign Against the Overuse of Antibiotics); and Bayer's refusal to pull Baytril from the market.

After several German newspapers carried the Ten Worst Corporations story, Bayer issued a statement rejecting the Multinational Monitor's charges. "Multinational Monitor is the organ of an alliance of activist groups that have the common aim of criticizing companies," according to Bayer which singled out the Coalition Against Bayer Dangers. "Bayer is one of the founding members of the UN Global Compact of UN Secretary Kofi Annan, that was started in July 2001. Therein the company obliges itself to agree with and spread nine principles the UN picked in the fields of human rights, social standards and environmental protection," the statement emphasized.

Bayer did not respond to any allegations but instead attacked their critics, say activists. The Coalition against Bayer Dangers has been sued by Bayer several times. In a spectacular case which dragged on for five years, the German Supreme Court ruled in favor of the watchdog group.

For more information on Bayer's record visit:

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Philipp Mimkes is with the Coalition Against Bayer Dangers in Germany.

AMP Section Name:Chemicals
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