Civil Society Will Lead the Way 

Monitoring business and human rights abuses is a colossal task that has long fell on the shoulders of non-profit organizations and other civil society groups. More recently, governments and even corporations themselves have joined the fight, with the latter even developing the concept of “corporate social responsibility.” Although civil society groups must bring attention to corporate abuse, they should err on the side of caution when working with others to advance justice.

Ideally, the state should be the most powerful force in monitoring business and human rights abuses. A government has far more resources and authority than your typical non-profit organization. But without strong conflict-of-interest policies, government actions are often at odds with the struggle to reign in corporate abuse.

Take the recent U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, for example. In a space where the world’s largest polluters shouldn’t even be, Global North governments – the EU, New Zealand, Australia, USA, and Norway – once again stood with fossil fuel industry lobbyists in obstructing climate policy negotiations. When a bloc of 47 nations submitted a proposal to protect against such conflicts of interest, the United States, Australia, and the EU successfully blocked the policy. As a result, ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel giants hiding behind trade organizations can continue to send more delegates to climate talks than dozens of countries suffering the worst effects of the climate crisis that the fossil fuel industry is responsible for. 

Even corporations with public commitments to “corporate social responsibility” can’t be trusted to do more than lip service. Although corporations have enormous social impact, at the end of the day they have no compelling motive to practice social responsibility. When their mere survival depends on maximizing shareholder value, siphoning money away for any purpose that doesn’t bring in profit in some way only allows competing corporations to surpass them. When people get in the way of profits, not only do corporations have no tangible incentive to respect human rights, but they are disadvantaged when they do.

Nevertheless, some giants like Coca-Cola have active corporate social responsibility departments. Unfortunately, the reach of their department seems narrow. 

Just two weeks ago, Nandlal Master – an activist challenging Coke in India – came to Corporate Accountability’s office to share his experience with us. We learned how Coke set up its plant in Mehdiganj, India and proceeded to carelessly dispose waste, ignore labor laws, and deplete the groundwater. Since Coke arrived in 2000, the groundwater in Mehdiganj has been dropping at a rate of more than a meter a year, leaving farmers without reliable sources for irrigation and all local residents without accessible sources of drinking water. This situation seems like a pretty urgent issue for a socially responsible corporation.  

Coke’s actions unveil the hypocrisy that can sometimes riddle “corporate social responsibility” efforts. Corporations may cherry-pick the issues they support, balancing positive “corporate social responsibility” public relations with the need for profit. This selective responsibility does not reflect the reality that social responsibility must be undertaken with a holistic approach that understands and respects the intersectionality of social injustices. Specific instances of social injustice do not exist in a vacuum but are instead fueled by a vast network of other social injustices. One cannot be truly committed to women’s empowerment, for example, without recognizing that when corporations cause environmental and economic conditions to deteriorate, women in many countries are the first to quit their jobs or drop out of school to support their families. To be truly committed to resolving a social issue means to be committed to resolving all social issues. Clearly this requires a long and difficult struggle, but doing the right thing has never been easy.

In the end, it once again comes down to civil society to lead the way in holding business accountable for respecting human rights. Non-profit organizations working in the human rights arena parallel corporations in their single-mindedness; while the latter exist to maximize profit, the former are established, maintained, and advanced by their commitment to prioritizing the well-being of people – and that commitment, when carried out with integrity, is incorruptible.

Advocacy for People Power

Heshan Berents-Weeramuni is the Communications Director for Corporate Accountability, a non-profit organization that fights corporate abuse and protects our democracy, human rights, and planet. In this interview, we discuss how he became interested in advocacy, what barriers there are to social change, and why he believes in people power.


Carter Teng: How did your upbringing shape your interests now?

Heshan Berents-Weeramuni: I came from a family that’s been very involved in social organizing and social justice issues. My parents were very conscious of social justice right from the get-go, so they imbued those values in me. It’s been something that I’ve always sort ofexperienced.

I was also an immigrant twice, which has given me an interesting perspective. You’re in one world with whatever level of privilege – or lack thereof. Then you move to another world, and it’s completely different. Because you remember what your life used to be like and what you don’t have anymore, it fundamentally allows you to question what for many people perhaps may not be revealed. Suddenly, very basic, fundamental things change so you become aware of people’s place in the world and how people move in it.

I was born in Sri Lanka and I moved to England when I was eight. I didn’t know any English. It was interesting to go from one very different life to the life of an immigrant, where your economic conditions completely change. That changes you and focuses you in some interesting ways.


CT: What led you into corporate accountability work?

HBW: I’ve always been concerned about corporate power since I was a teenager. I’ve always come to terms with the fact that there are certain spaces that you as a citizen just don’t get into. There are decisions made because there’s so much money on the line that ordinary citizens don’t have access to their own democratic institutions. That’s been something I’ve been very concerned about for decades now. It’s coming from my own personal history of colonialism, as well as our world’s legacy of colonialism and imperialism. It’s the same thing – just more polite and a lot less transparent. It’s a privatized form of colonialism. Nation-states are like client states to multinational corporations. The abuses that I’ve seen aren’t being checked because nation-states are so ill-equipped to deal with transnational corporations that don’t have the concerns of answering to people.

It’s the water that we swim in without realizing what it is. Once you see that power, it’s very difficult to unsee it – and that’s how it should be.


CT: What do you think is the most effective way to mobilize apathetic populations?

HBW: I think that people are generally apathetic because there are plenty of people who feel hopeless and haven’t been given the opportunity to feel a sense of hope and accomplishment. I also think that there’s a cynicism that results from that. Enthusiasm and optimism are great disinfectants for that. It’s about communicating a shared vision of hope for the future – not in some silly, woo-woo way, but in a very concrete way. We really have to emphasize that change happens and that fundamental change is very possible. It happens at the most unexpected times. 

For me, when you’re shown your own power and your own agency, that’s a really good motivator. I think people feel apathetic because they feel powerless. Just show the possibilities to them and give folks a sense of their own possibility to step into their own power. When you organize people, you give them very small steps that build and build and build. People move through it and at a certain point, they are way ahead of you. They’re doing the stuff that you haven’t even thought about doing yet because they stepped into their own power. I’m a fundamental believer in the ability of people to go and do the right thing, organize together, get inspired, and inspire everyone. It’s not pie-in-the-sky because I’ve seen it happen.


CT: What do you think is the biggest challenge facing effective advocacy?

HBW: That sense of apathy and self-defeat, for sure. There’s also the sheer power of disinformation and the fact that we live in a world that is increasingly atomized; where connections with people are mediated by – dare I say it – corporations in many ways.

Have you read Antonio Gramsci yet? Power for him operates on two levels. 10% of it is through coercion. 90% of it is through consent. People buy into the system of oppression they are born into or find themselves in. They come to accept it and internalize it because they think that’s the only world that’s possible. You can only make changes on the periphery. You have institutions that you’re supposed to take part in. You can tinker around the edges and that’s the best that you can do. I think it’s that level of not being able to see your own possibility. It’s difficult to imagine another world when the world that you know is the status quo. It’s difficult to step outside of it. 

I think it’s getting less difficult because there’s been so much social upheaval that power itself is getting more desperate. Coercion is getting stronger because there is less and less consent. Our wealth disparity is so stark. It’s become so much more apparent

So it’s getting people to understand their sense of agency when they themselves willingly consent to their own forms of oppression. We consent to our own oppression without even thinking about it. You don’t want to rock the boat, you don’t want to lose friends, and you don’t want to ruin the cocktail party conversation. It’s easy.


CT: What do you think is the biggest barrier to achieving corporate responsibility?

HBW: You’re really dealing with corporations as entities, trying to get them to have a soul and take part in the public interest. From a legal perspective, it’s broadening a definition of who corporations are responsible for and what their legal obligations are. Right now, it’s in shambles. There has to be a much broader sense of that. 

It’s also taking away corporate personhood so that executives are criminally and legally liable for the decisions that they make. From a legal perspective, that’s one thing. It’s also incumbent on the rest of humanity to question their authority – that corporations should not run economies, should not dictate policy, should not be the gatekeepers to our freedoms and our happiness. They are accountable – and to take a leaf out of our mission statement – they are accountable to people, not to themselves. Their actions have real consequences – not only for people, but should for them as well. They should have negative consequences. They are abusive.


CT: What does your work at Corporate Accountability entail?

HBW: Pretty much everything communications-related. There’s a very high level of campaign support and fundraising support, which are essentially one. Fundraising is campaign impact and is a part of campaigning, but you can’t have a successful fundraising campaign unless we are succeeding in our regular campaigns. That requires the communications unit to really play the part of strategically amplifying and effectively communicating the messaging we have to communicate so that we change the public climate around certain things. 

My main job is to get us known in the world. My responsibility is to have us established in the audiences that we want to message to and establish us as authorities, people that are valued, and people who are serious and effective in this mission of curtailing corporate power. It’s about trying to come up with compelling messaging that is accessible and that resonates and inspires people you’re trying to communicate with, especially with particular audiences – whether they are funding networks, individual members, donors, allies, governments, or corporate targets. That’s the communications end of it. That’s our entire org ID work. That’s on our shoulders – spreading our message and making sure we’re communicating effectively.



CT: How has your time at Corporate Accountability changed your views and interests?

HBW: I’ve become a lot more biographically aware of my own journey through systems of oppression. The work we are doing in terms of our racial equity work is really interesting to me. I’ve done a lot of work in communities of color with those responsibilities but what’s been interesting for me is thinking far more systematically about the role of corporations, the role of systemic racism, and the way that they are pretty intertwined. That’s been an interesting journey for me. Unexpected, in many ways, because I get the class and economic power relationship, but then you see a whole different level of how economic oppression happens across gender lines, racial lines in addition to class lines. You see this far more up close and personal than most people get to see it and that has changed me in my perspective and appreciation of the way that power operates and the way systems of oppression operate – particularly with indigenous communities and communities of color. 

That was something I would always deal with in my previous job. This is on a far more global scale, though. You can see this at the city and the state level. You see how Chevron goes and poisons people in Richmond, California. You see how they do it, how they message around it, and how they sanitize their image so that basically all those black and brown folks that they’re poisoning get erased. They don’t really get to have a voice in that. Fortunately, you see the way that we as an organization really pay attention to not letting that happen. It’s been an interesting learning experience for me, but very challenging as well. It’s challenging in the positive sense of the term. 


CT: What advice do you have for those who want to work in civil society?

HBW: I’ll give my opinion and hope it works as advice too. I think it’s really bloody difficult not to despair and a fundamental sense of optimism and stability is important because it’s tough to feel that you’re not able to impact vast social issues but you can. And you should, because everyone should. You have to have a degree of blind idealism and optimism because you know that things are going to be different and you can change civil society for the better. It’s remembering that because it can be really overwhelming. It can be a depressing thing every once in a while.

It’s also realizing there is such community in the work that we do. Honestly, it’s kind of fun when you treat it also as a social exercise where you meet people and have some meaningful, deep, and lasting friendships. Once you get into this work, you meet so many like-minded people and that’s a bond for life. I still remember people I was organizing with around unionization drives in my teens and stuff like that. We still keep in touch. 

The Power of the People

“Hi there! Can you take a quick photo to help stop climate change?”

Most people smile apologetically. Others say they’re in a rush, a flat “no”, or nothing at all as they pick up their pace to walk past me, my poster, and my clipboard in the Boston Commons.

Every once in a while, I’ll rope a person into listening to my spiel. I’ll tell them that I’m with the Kick Big Polluters Out campaign, and that other members on the campaign are at the U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany right now. I’ll point to the list of wealthy governments on the top of my poster and denounce them for siding with Big Polluters at the ongoing conference for climate policy. Then, I’ll explain how climate policies that benefit Big Polluters simultaneously force the worst effects of climate change on people around the world. Yes, delegates from the E.U., New Zealand, Australia, USA, and Norway are siding with lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry against critical climate action. No, it’s not the conference where the Paris Agreement is discussed, but it leads up to that conference and is just as important. No, it’s not in the media, so no wonder you haven’t heard of it.

Kick Big Polluters Poster
The poster used in the Kick Big Polluters Out photo petitions.

Once I start my spiel, everything goes smoothly until I ask my audience to take a picture with the poster in my hand and post it on social media. Half of the time, I take the picture and successfully persuade them to tweet it with a pre-written caption and hashtags like #PollutersOut. Other times, I face resistance. How does taking a picture do anything? What good does activism on social media do? Why would a government care that a guy like me knows what they’re doing at the negotiating table?

I am quick to respond because the answer is written into my script. What I say is true – participants at the climate talks are checking hashtags like #PollutersOut, seeing people around the world posing with a poster that criticizes their cozy relationship with Big Polluters, and feeling the pressure that comes when one is caught doing what they should not. But I understand their concerns because I share them as well. Although I fail to think of a better way to mobilize people to protest the presence of Big Polluters at climate talks between governments, I nevertheless harbor doubts about how Twitter can save global climate policy.

Days afterwards, Corporate Accountability circulated an email encouraging us to attend the Wayfair Walkout. The week before, Wayfair employees discovered that the company sold $200,000 of furniture to migrant detention facilities along the Mexico-United States border with unsafe conditions. When they protested, Wayfair refused to cease business operations with the contractor that operates the facilities. In response, some Wayfair employees began to organize a walkout on Twitter. The @wayfairwalkout Twitter account quickly gained momentum  in a wave that other Corporate Accountability interns and I joined. 

Standing in Copley Square among hundreds of other protesters , I shouted protest chants and witnessed fiery speeches from both community organizers and undergraduate Wayfair interns. As I looked out at the sea of people skipping their lunch break, taking time off work, or traveling from out of town to stand with the Wayfair employees blatantly challenging the decisions of their superiors, I found it funny how I had doubted the power of social media. Organizations and other entities – like the protesters at Wayfair – place their eggs in the social media basket because it is one of the purest forms of people power.

By recruiting people to join the Kick Big Polluters Out campaign through social media posts, Corporate Accountability is creating impact that is two-fold. As we unveil the conflicts of interest that prevent the development of effective climate policy, we are simultaneously empowering people to challenge the coalition of governments and fossil fuel industry lobbyists through social media. Although we aim to bring about a campaign that will start trending and produce policy changes, it is equally important to inspire people to simply get involved in the first place. Questions like “why would a government care that a guy like me knows what they’re doing at the negotiating table?” reflect a persistent culture of hopelessness that only help powerful interests get away with unacceptable actions. Such questions do not reflect the reality that once instigated, people power can snowball into a formidable challenge to powerful interests. In fact, fossil fuel industry lobbyists and the governments that stand with them heavily rely on the severely limited coverage of the U.N. climate talks in Bonn to altogether avoid opposition fueled by people power. Just imagine the policy that can come out of the U.N. climate talks if a civically engaged society voiced their opinions on climate change. Just imagine the impact of protests and walkouts if more people were confident in their ability to achieve change.

Now, my answer to the questions I received about the impact of Corporate Accountability’s #PollutersOut social media campaign would veer off the script. I’d say that by acting on your power to bring about change in any way is a victory – and that by sharing what you’ve learned from my spiel and the ways you can protest against injustices at the U.N. climate talks on social media, you’ve helped bring us closer to change than we were without you. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Apathy in Advocacy: The Threshold for Action

Six months ago, I discovered Corporate Accountability after an eye-opening class on the theoretical foundations of cultural anthropology. Over the course of the semester, I came to the sobering realization that most individuals face injustices as intersectional as themselves. In a small classroom with a total of ten desks, my professor uprooted all my beliefs and assumptions on how the world works.

Corporate Accountability seeks to do exactly what my professor did: uproot the status quo. As a non-governmental organization committed to bringing successful but abusive transnational corporations to justice, it aims to eliminate both transnational corporate abuse and its role in catalyzing the effects of intersectional injustices that range from economic inequality to gender inequality. Through their work, Corporate Accountability challenges the everyday corporations we have come to love and trust but who sometimes need to be held accountable for their actions.

Smoke Stacks
Photo from ShutterStock #226073734

Corporate Accountability’s mission is in four global campaigns: Food, Water, Tobacco, and Climate. The Food campaign targets McDonald’s, which markets unhealthy food to our most vulnerable demographic – children. In the Water campaign, the primary concern is the impact of Veolia and Nestle, corporations that profit off consolidating control of and decreasing access to a public resource. Philip Morris International and British American Tobacco, which produce Marlboro and Lucky Strike respectively, are two of the corporations the Tobacco campaign has worked to stop from addicting people to their products. Finally, the Climate campaign is dedicated to preventing “big polluters” from compromising the climate policy needed to address what the United Nations deems “the defining issue of our time.” Across all four campaigns, Corporate Accountability seeks to shine a light on what corporations want to keep hidden: that they drastically lower their costs of operation and practice predatory marketing in the pursuit of profit, thereby exploiting people and forcing society to shoulder the costs they themselves avoid. As a result, people consume unhealthy and unsafe products; the planet suffers from ongoing existential threats; and society pays for the damages corporations create such as rising healthcare costs, massive oil spills, and more.

In the face of abusive transnational corporations with revenues larger than many countries’ GDPs, we must turn to the power of people united in the pursuit of justice. Corporate Accountability has proven that mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people can end the most dangerous marketing to vulnerable demographics and create laws that keep the power of corporations in check. Right before writing this, I received news that in response to our campaigning, the mayor of Pittsburgh – once a strong supporter of water privatization – recently sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission asserting that “Pittsburgh’s water belongs to its people and the PWSA (Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority) will never be up for sale.” Now, Pittsburgh’s water is safe from Veolia, the private water corporation behind the Flint water crisis that consistently extracts profitable contracts from cities while mismanaging their water. Rallying behind human rights and against corporate abuse can prevail.

To ensure Corporate Accountability remains at the forefront of the global movement to bring transnational corporations to justice, my role with Corporate Accountability involves facilitating the communication needed to fuel mobilization. As a communications and media intern, I will help develop campaigns, present strong, data-driven arguments, and amplify Corporate Accountability’s work in the media.

Although I am eager to contribute to Corporate Accountability’s campaigns, I am struggling with the question of how to effectively communicate the urgency of addressing corporate abuse to the public. The facts are there; the urgency is often not. It’s hard to ignore the fear that comes after learning that because of obesity, today’s children have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Or that 1 billion people around the world lack access to clean and affordable drinking water, a resource that is becoming increasingly privatized. Or that tobacco-related diseases are the largest preventable cause of death – but at least it’s preventable, unlike the deteriorating climate change crisis that Exxon could have prevented in 1968 when they first discovered the irreversible consequences of increased fossil fuel consumption but instead kept their operations business-as-usual.

I’m confident I can translate Corporate Accountability’s work into campaigns that are accessible to the public. But how can I translate these campaigns into widespread action? As a student in my professor’s class, I first refused to let go of the status quo I thought I knew; then, I understood that the status quo was flawed; finally, after repeatedly studying these systemic flaws – whether it be through W.E.B. Dubois’ work on racism, Mary Daly’s work on gender inequality, or bell hooks’ work on both – I became unsettled enough to act. Perhaps people must be repeatedly exposed to strategic messages that unveil the extent of transnational corporate abuse in order to say that “enough is enough”. Over the next few weeks, I hope to become familiar with this threshold for action that has often eluded me and many other activists.