The Mythology of Corporate Social Responsibility

Against the Current, No. 111, July/August 2004

Ursula McTaggart

FOR DOW CHEMICAL, corporate social responsibility means encouraging its employees to volunteer in their communities  as long as that doesn’t take up company time.  It means, according to the Dow website, that “At Dow, protecting people and the environment is part of everything we do and every decision we make.”

Although they may be a part of decision making, rarely have human rights or environmental concerns won out against the real, economic bottom line.  Dow, which is now the sole owner of Union Carbide, still refuses to clean up Bhopal, India for Union Carbide’s 1984 gas leak that killed and injured thousands.  Compensation, of course, is out of the question.

In a letter to Dow employees on the eighteenth anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, Michael Parker wrote that “what we cannot and will not do- no matter where Greenpeace takes their protests and how much they seek to undermine Dow’s reputation with the general public -is accept responsibility for the Bhopal accident…I also hope you will not let this deter your pride in our company and all that it stands for.”(1)

[For details on Dow and Bhopal see Ursula McTaggart, “Dioxin, Bhopal and Dow Chemical,” ATC 106, September-October 2003.]

Dow’s expressed concern for its own hometown of Midland, MI, has not impressed all of its residents.  Since the late 1970s, when early studies on dioxin in the Midland area were released, the community has debated the risks of dioxin contamination from the plant and its emissions in the Tittabawassee River.  

Currently, a group of citizens is attempting to wage a class action suit against Dow.  They seek compensation for increased health risks and lost property value due to soil contamination on their properties.

In recent confrontations with activists and residents, including the highly publicized lawsuit and numerous protests led by activists seeking justice in Bhopal, Dow has taken a militant stand to protect its shareholders. In the Midland Daily News it has publicly ridiculed homeowners for selling their homes at full value and, as the quote from Michael Parker indicates, it has expressed few qualms about direct attacks on Bhopali protesters or their supporters.  

At last year’s shareholders’ meeting, the question and answer session, which had elicited a number of activist questions about dioxin and Bhopal, ended with a glowing recommendation of Dow from an audience and community member, followed by a standing ovation.  This apparently staged process again reflects an aggressive public relations tactic taken by the corporation.  

These moves are by no means foreign to activists, nor are they unexpected.  Nick Nichols, CEO of Nichols Dezenhall Communications Management Group Ltd, expresses this type of aggressive response:

“Businesses are being attacked by activists with increasing vehemence and with increasing frequency.  But reactions vary: appeasement or attack?  It is important to heed George Santayana’s sage observation of a century ago: ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’  If appeasement is chosen, then retreat and defeat will be the outcomes for businesses.”(2)

Nichols’ statement is rare not in its sentiment but in its overt expression of corporate intentions.  Instead of (or in addition to) aggressive, confrontational moves, many corporations hope to solve their problems through successful public relations.  Public relations, which has now become so ingrained in business culture that it is rarely viewed as propaganda, has more recently assumed a new guise: corporate social responsibility.

CSR, as some business and PR professionals call it -trivializing human rights and social justice by slotting it into a corporate acronym- has been a particularly powerful tool in the war against activists. Corporate social responsibility, as a business tactic, aims to engage activists in a battle for public legitimacy.

It’s important to remember that the corporations that employ CSR are not necessarily different from the ones that employ aggressive tactics. Dow, in fact, despite the aggressive moves I’ve already detailed, was one of the first multinational corporations to embrace extensive and sophisticated public relations tactics, and its spokesmen have become adept at rattling off the rhetoric of corporate social responsibility.

Armed with a large PR staff and budget, a team of “scientific experts” ready to testify, and full access to a willing press (the Monday, March 1 Midland Daily News ran three separate articles, each of which detailed one of Dow’s complaints about the proposed class action suit), corporations like Dow are powerful foes precisely because they have the flexibility to move between politically correct and aggressive anti-activist techniques.(3)

In a town like Midland, where many people support Dow in part because they fear the loss of union jobs if Dow cuts and runs, public relations may help the community reaffirm the strength and benevolence of its neighbor and employer.

I don’t mean to suggest that CSR policies are always wholly disingenuous or part of a massive corporate plot against activists.  Neither a well framed plot nor malicious intentions are necessary for corporations to continue human and environmental exploitation.  

The true intentions of a corporation are, from a socialist perspective, entirely irrelevant.  Instead of separating corporations by their sincerity or lack thereof, socialist activists must refuse to lose sight of our larger demands.  In the case of Dow, we don’t want to impose slightly more strict regulatory codes or earn a contribution to the Bhopal fund.

This substitutes philanthropy, good feelings, and sanctioned levels of exploitation or pollution in place of true, structural change. These minor concessions may be helpful in assuaging immediate and pressing problems, but we ultimately want to change the system itself.

We shouldn’t ask: “how much dioxin should Dow be allowed to release?” but “should we be producing such chemicals at all?”  We not only need to clean up Bhopal and Midland, but we need to give the people of Bhopal and Midland control over their land and production.

Activists often settle for these smaller questions because they feel powerless in the fight against the corporate world.  But corporations do not see them in the same way.  Multinational corporations are terrified of activists.

Chris Thomas, who works for an online “reputation consultants” firm, claims that “activists have had a head start over corporations in terms of using the web, and many groups have developed an impressive command of the medium.”(4) He presents big business as the beleaguered underdog in the fight against activism.

John Stauber highlights the prevalence of such beliefs in his investigation of the PR industry, Toxic Sludge is Good for You.  He reprints “The Clorox PR Crisis Plan,” which was developed by the Ketchum PR firm in 1991 for the Clorox Company.  This plan expresses corporate fear particularly well.  The following scenarios are presented as crises:

“1. Greenpeace activists arrive at Clorox headquarters with signs, banners, bull horns and several local television crews…They release the results of a new ‘study’ linking chlorine exposure to cancer.  

“2. The movement back to more natural household cleaning products is gaining momentum…A prominent newspaper columnist targets the environmental hazards of liquid chlorine bleach in an article, which is syndicated to newspapers across the country.  The columnist calls for consumers to boycott Clorox products.  

“3. At least one scientist adviser to the chlorine industry has voiced concern that the National Toxicology Program analysts could conclude that chlorine may possibly be an animal carcinogen.”(5)

So why is the public relations panic at major corporations important?  First, it presents a strikingly different picture of activism today than most of us receive from the media, which largely ignored massive protests over the war in Iraq and the Free Trade Area of the Americas.  

This marginalization and minimalization of activist power leads the general public to feel hopeless about its ability to change the social structure.  Crisis plans like Clorox’s remind us that while the media might not take the activist threat seriously, corporations certainly do.  Public relations, which is essentially nothing more than the fight against activists, has become a powerful business in its own right.  

Second, we must recognize corporate fear because it leads us to question corporate social responsibility as simply a production of PR.  If corporations have crisis plans, we as activists not only need to be generating these crises, we need to be predicting and countering the corporate responses to them.

In particular, as socialists, we need to reject the integration of activists into corporate bureaucracy through CSR projects.  Our project is an anti capitalist, anti corporate one that cannot be achieved simply by adjusting the levels of acceptable pollution or raising the wages in Indonesia marginally.  

That is not to say that small gains can’t sometimes be important.  As an activist with United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) at Indiana University, I face this conflict between realistic short term goals and long term anti capitalist goals on a daily basis.

National affiliates of USAS have succeeded in publicizing sweatshop exploitation and in gaining significant concessions from universities and corporations.  At IU, as at many universities, we have forced licensees that produce university products to adhere to a code of conduct that includes basic organizing rights and ultimately aims for a living wage.  

A Workers’ Rights Committee made up of administrators and students enforces that code of conduct by threatening to cut contracts when corporations violated the code. Although this has been a major step forward in our ability to negotiate with the university and with corporations on a case by case level, it also presents some dangers.  

First, by working more closely with administrators and corporations, we run the risk of submitting to bureaucracy and accepting minor concessions rather than fighting for major changes.  Second, because we no longer need to stage a major battle in the public sphere in order to chastise a corporation, we do so much less often. This is problematic because, as anti capitalist activists, the public sphere is ultimately the venue in which we must win.   

CSR is dangerous because it is seductive.  It nominally and rhetorically returns human concerns to the center of production.  

Capitalism never truly works this way.  In the case of Dow, success means ever increasing profits.  In order to generate those profits, Dow will continue to invent and produce a host of new and potentially dangerous chemicals every year.  Contrary to general public belief, the vast majority of such chemicals are not tested or approved for safety by the government.  

The burden of proof, in fact, lies with the EPA or with those challenging safety to prove that the chemicals are unsafe.  Even without considering its exploitation of employees, we can see that a fight against Dow that relies on the corporation’s benevolence and social responsibility has no chance of winning anything meaningful.
Both in a traditional socialist spirit and in response to an increasingly globalized capitalist system, socialist activists must function on an international level.  Anti Dow activists have begun to gesture in this direction.

Bhopali survivors travel to Michigan each year for the shareholders meeting, and in January 2004 several activists from Michigan traveled to the World Social Forum in Mumbai, India to speak on Dow’s dioxin contamination in Michigan.  At the same time, they visited Bhopal as guests of the survivors’ movement.  Such connections are crucial in the development of a true socialist people’s movement.  

Because the division of labor emerges on a global scale as much as on a local one, American activists must recognize themselves as generally privileged actors in the global system.  As I hope the anti Dow movement has illustrated, socialism today can also benefit from the integration of labor and environmentalist concerns.  

Environmentalism, though it has sometimes been insular and limited as in the case of some NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) movements, is nonetheless powerful because it can mobilize an entire community  not simply the workers  against corporate power.  

Because workers today often fear outsourcing or corporate relocation if they challenge their employer, community activists may be more likely to mobilize public opinion.  Also, environmental concerns associated even with NIMBYism increase the social and political consciousness of community members who may initially be interested only in protecting themselves or their families.

Finally, due to the fact that environmental contamination disproportionately affects impoverished communities, the potential exists for an alliance between the two movements that stresses a socialist restructuring of wealth and power.  

A socialist system today would ideally alter not only who controls the means of production but also what kinds of goods should be produced.  It would put those who are currently exploited in control of their own products and environments.


  • “An Open Letter to All Employees, on the Tragedy in Bhopal, India 18 Years Ago,” The Dow Chemical Company Home Page, <a href=””></a>, November 28, 2002. Emphasis in original.
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  • Nick Nichols, “Stopping the Activist Attackers,” New Activism and the Corporate Response, eds. Steve John and Stuart Thomson, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, 137.
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  • The Midland Daily News, &lt;a href=””&gt;;/a&gt;.
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  • Chris Thomas, “Cyberactivism and Corporations: New Strategies for New Media,” New Activism and the Corporate Response, op. cit.
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  • John Stauber, Toxic Sludge is Good for You, Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995, 209 12.
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  • ATC 111, July-August 2004