We have been led to believe that consumer power can modify the unethical behaviour of big corporations (may be it can, in a small way) and promote a better society. The difficulty is in knowing what the manufacturers of the products we consume are up to. The collapse of the building in Bangladesh with the loss of hundreds of lives highlighted, again, the working conditions of the people who make our cheap clothes. But here comes the ambivalence of the developed West to engage in a meaningful way so that workers rights become universal: the end of cheap clothes, mobiles and food. Here is some food for thought, which is in fact free.

Conflict of Interests in Education? Oxford University earth sciences lab to be funded by Shell

100 Oxford alumni have signed a letter condemning the decision to accept funding from Shell for the University’s climate change studies. Although Shell has been developing “greening” policies its track record leaves much to be desired:

Royal Dutch Shell Pic is ranked as the second largest company in the world, after Wal-Mart Stores. But there are rather murky slots in its history.

“Shell saved the Nazi Party when it was in danger of financial collapse and continued, for over a decade, to pump funds into the Nazi project.” (John Donovan)

Environmental pollution: The presence of companies like Shell in Niger-Delta has led to extreme environmental issues in the Niger Delta. Many pipelines in the Niger-Delta owned by Shell are old and corroded. This has resulted in many oil spills in this area that have degraded the environment, killing off vegetation and fish. Shell has acknowledged its responsibility for keeping the pipelines new but has also denied responsibility for environmental causes… In January 2013, a Dutch court rejected four out of five allegations brought against the firm over oil pollution in the Niger Delta but found a subsidiary guilty of one case of pollution, ordering compensation to be paid to a Nigerian farmer.

In Magdelena, Argentina: Shell was responsible for the largest oil spill that has ever occurred in freshwater in the world. On 15 January 1999, a Shell tank ship in Magdalena, Argentina collided with another tanker, emptying its contents into the lake, polluting the environment, drinkable water, plants and animals.

In August 2008, the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled that Shell had misled the public in an advertisement when it claimed that a $10 billion oil sands project in Alberta, Canada was a “sustainable energy source”.

In 2009, Shell was the subject of an Amnesty International report into the deterioration of human rights as a consequence of Shell’s activities in the Niger Delta. In particular, Amnesty criticised the continuation of gas flaring and Shell’s slow response to oil spills.

Infiltration Tactics (relevant to the Oxford funding): In 2010, a leaked cable revealed that Shell claims to have inserted staff into all the main ministries of the Nigerian government and know “everything that was being done in those ministries”, according to Shell’s top executive in Nigeria. The same executive also boasted that the Nigerian government had forgotten about the extent of Shell’s infiltration. Documents released in 2009 (but not used in the court case) reveal that Shell regularly made payments to the Nigerian military in order to prevent protests.

Other accusations against Shell (e.g., plans for Arctic drilling without contingency plans in case of oil spills) makes it a strange choice for ecological studies funding. But in the climate of cuts to education, austerity measures, trebling of students’ fees and reduction of foreign students in the lurch-to-the-right immigration crackdown it is not surprising that some of the dons are choosing to ignore the obvious conflict of interests and convince themselves it is for a good cause. (Pragmatism, the ends justify the means, etc, etc)

More ethical conundrums

Stephen Hawking, who has suffered from motor neurone disease for the past 50 years and is probably one of the most respected scientists of our times, has decided to boycott an Israeli conference in protest at the occupation of Palestine. The problem is that he uses a computer-based system to communicate as he has lost his capacity to speak. His famous metallic voice, heard in conferences, TV lectures and interviews, and even in the Simpsons comes out of a machine that contains Israeli technology.

Journalist and ecological activist George Mombiot has been searching for “a smartphone that is not soaked in blood”… His point being: “are the components soaked in the blood of people from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo? For 17 years, rival armies and militias have been fighting over the region’s minerals. Among them are metals critical to the manufacture of electronic gadgets, without which no smartphone would exist: tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold.” He despairs at the lack of information available from phones manufactures about the sourcing of their materials that would allow a consumer, like him, or you and me, to make an informed decision.

Are you reaching for a Kleenex? Think again

U.S. Congressman James Sensenbrenner (Republican from Wisconsin) is the sponsor of a bill to expel and criminalise 11 million undocumented immigrants and construct a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. He is also the heir to the Kimberly-Clark manufacturers of Kleenex, Scott, Huggies, and Andrex, amongst other products sold in more than 80 countries. In fact the word Kleenex has successfully replaced the word handkerchief in many languages. Perhaps confusion between cleaning and ethnic cleansing!

In 2005, Greenpeace launched a campaign against Kimberly-Clark because the company had been linked to the logging of ancient Boreal forests. The campaign ended in August 2009, following the release of a new environmental policy by Kimberly-Clark. The two organizations announced that they were moving “away from conflict to a new collaborative relationship to further promote forest conservation, responsible forest management, and the use of recycled fibre for the manufacture of tissue products.” The connection to the racist policies of Congressman Sensenbrenner does not seem to appear in the conflict or its resolution.

Campaigns against Coca-Cola and McDonalds have been vociferous and guilt inducing, but corporate products, banks, media, leisure, etc, are everywhere and are part of our everyday life. Awareness is vital, but complete awareness is next to impossible. As we contemplate the alternatives to the present system that are being born and developed, the question of corporate influence and how to neutralise it must be a subject for creative discussion and education.

It is not only a matter of changing laws and regulations, but of changing the culture and the values that can lead some human beings to be so insensitive to the lives and needs of others. Only a society that holds the human being as a central value, above money and power, can create an economic system that offers a truly ethical and coherent existence.