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Are all corporations evil? If you’re a member of Harvard’s environmental and social advocacy circles, the answer is most likely an unequivocal “yes.”
I used to agree. Now, I’m not so sure.
I became interested in environmental advocacy after watching Food, Inc. in high school, a documentary describing how mega agriculture companies like Monsanto (now Bayer) corrupted the U.S. food industry. My distrust of corporations solidified as I exhausted media like Merchants of Doubt and Dirty Money — books and documentaries describing egregious examples of corporate greed.
This view was only reinforced by the people I surrounded myself with at Harvard. “Bring down the Capitalist Patriarchy!” my Social(ism) Studies peers cheer. Environmental advocates agreed, brandishing their tofurky sausages.
In an effort to learn more about keeping evil corporations accountable, I enrolled in Professor Jane Nelson’s class on International and Global Affairs 165M: “Corporate Responsibility and New Governance Models”. Instead of a lesson in how to body slam ExxonMobil, I was forced to reconsider my overgeneralized views on corporate activity: This is my plea for my fellow granola advocates to do the same.
Over the past several decades, corporations have increasingly published Corporate Responsibility reports outlining their sustainability initiatives. Corporate Responsibility (CR) is a “management practice whereby companies integrate social, environmental, and economic concerns into their business operations.” In 1999, 35 percent of G250 companies published sustainability reports. Now, 80 percent of companies worldwide report on sustainability, 40 percent acknowledge the financial risks of climate change to business operations, and a majority have plans to reduce CO2 emissions.
Following the horrific murder of George Floyd, businesses pursued various strategies to combat systemic racism in America and within their own operations. Many donated to racial justice organizations, made Juneteenth a holiday, and pledged to increase office inclusivity. Amazon and IBM placed moratoriums on racial recognition technology due to potential human rights violations. Esteé Lauder Companies and Facebook pledged to employ more Black and Latinx workers and Black-owned suppliers.
When Covid-19 struck, corporations everywhere utilized a variety of tools such as philanthropy, core business activities, and partnerships to fight the virus. Amazon’s $4 billion Covid-related initiatives focused on employee health and supporting hard-hit communities by donating money, PPE, and other equipment.
Self-interest is undoubtedly driving corporate participation in such initiatives. CR initiatives can improve a company’s image, increase brand recognition, and build community dependence on temporary services. Sustainability reporting can also serve as a cover up for significant irresponsible actions — in mid-February, New York’s Attorney General sued Amazon over its alleged failure to protect more than 5,000 employees in two facilities from exposure to Covid-19.
Despite the blatant gap between sincere motive and outcome in these initiatives, CR has contributed billions of dollars globally towards social and environmental causes and put pressure on complicit peer corporations to improve unscrupulous practices, helping facilitate broader cultural shifts. The potential for good here should not be ignored.
The anti-capitalist in me was initially perplexed by this information. How can it be that some corporations are at once self-interested and philanthropic: the modern-day perpetrators of grave social ails and some of the leading champions of social responsibility?
Consumers and evolving market forces are incentivizing corporations to act consciously, as well as irresponsibly. From this, we can glean that not all corporations can be subjected to a rigid good-bad binary.
As the father and skeptic of unregulated capitalism Adam Smith, once wrote: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity, but to their self-love.”
Using this corporate self-interest as a lever, consumers, employees, and investors are demanding more than just products and services. Many employees and consumers, especially those with the financial privilege to choose, will select careers and products based on a corporation’s initiatives. Sustainable investments globally more than doubled from $13.3 trillion in 2012 to $30.7 trillion in 2018.
Additionally, taking action to mitigate natural disasters, pandemics, and humanitarian crises helps businesses manage risk. The rate of such crises has accelerated over past decades and is projected to continue due to climate change, urbanization, globalization, and other transformations.
Despite these powerful forces, corporate greed — a cultural fetishization of profit — is inextricable from the corporation. So too is the profit-motivated corporation woven into the fabric of America’s capitalist spirit and cultural desires. Capitalism’s drive for endless growth puts pressure on corporations to meet consumers’ endless demand for cheap beef, plastic products, energy, and clothing regardless of the negative externalities. Dehumanization, corruption, and glossy CR reports are its products.
I’m a pragmatist. While I want to uproot the Capitalist Patriarchy as much as the next granola advocate, I do not see an alternate economic system being instated fast enough to solve the dire problems capitalism has created. CR, however, can be a solution if we nurture it effectively.
Yes, corporate incentives are flawed, but many have conformed to demands for social responsibility and have made tangible steps in the right direction. More will do the same if advocates condemn the plethora of bad while celebrating the significant good. Doing so may even open up opportunities for us — as advocates, consumers, future workers, and dare I say, investors — to collaborate with willing corporations.
Ultimately, wielding corporate self-interest wisely will serve our own interest in making the world a better place.
Ariel G. Silverman ’23, a Social Studies concentrator, lives in Mather House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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