Are corporations interested in the communities where they work? I recently participated in a workshop with a transnational executive. He noted that at the head office it was hard to talk in any terms other than corporate self-interest. However, in the company's widely dispersed field operations, more space existed for individuals to act on their social concerns. Some employees, he said, were very involved locally in community development. He polled the employees worldwide and found fifty interested in coming together to talk about their social agendas.
The story reminded me that despite corporations' hard-nosed image, in the end they are made up of people. But does the periphery fundamentally influence the centre? Do individuals influence the system?
Our planet seems to have caught up with the old expression, "Money makes the world go round." In the era of globalization, daily currency transactions surpass $1 trillion. Transnational corporations are, as Kevin Arsenault reminds us, reaching into every corner of the world.
Globalization's hegemony is changing the lives of us all, sometimes for better, too often for worse. Take unemployment: three decades ago "acceptable" unemployment rates crested at 5 or 6 per cent; today they top 10, 11, 12 per cent. Over the last three decades the global rich-poor gap has doubled. Every day brings another reminder of the vulnerability of our physical environment: global warming up, ozone down, grain stocks at an all-time low, fish stocks depleted, and so on.
Power is shifting from governments (sometimes democratically responsive to the public good) to corporations, from national corporate entities to international ones. How do corporations make decisions? Are they all based on cold cost/benefit analyses looking only as far ahead as the next quarter? How do values and ethical considerations factor into the corporate boardroom's number-crunching? How will society's needs be reconciled with the profit imperative?
Most theories of progressive social change don't include business as a positive change agent. Will theory adapt? Should practice adapt? Business Week profiled Greenpeace's fight against global warming. Campaign director Jeremy Leggett is working to convince the insurance and banking industries that global warming could bankrupt them and has persuaded fifty companies to sign a UN accord encouraging private enterprise to consider climate change in all business practices. "Environmental groups aren't going to solve the world's problems," Leggett says. "Industry will."
A provocative concept. Even if business isn't going to solve all problems, can it be made benign? Dee Kramer profiles one corporation that is moving in that direction. Who will propel values into the boardrooms? Will it be the "ethical investors" who, as Eugene Ellmen suggests, face some tension between their social justice roots and their business involvement? How will alternative ideas of "progress," such as the one outlined here by Dutch economist Bob Goudzwaard, be generated, profiled and acted on?
These issues are increasingly becoming part of the public debate. Investment dealer Donald Coxe recognized as much in his Toronto Globe and Mail column when he said, "Capitalism is now the only game, and members of the public aren't just spectators any more." Perhaps the question comes down to whether we, "the public," are spectators, consumers, or citizens with rights to exercise and responsibilities to fulfil.
Our future will turn on the answer.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld