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.

Carter Teng, placed with Corporate Accountability, is a sophomore from Raleigh, North Carolina. She is pursuing a major in Political Science, a minor in Cultural Anthropology, and a certificate in Markets and Management Studies. She is passionate about intersectionality in social justice issues and mobilizing vulnerable communities to fundamentally change the institutions that disenfranchise them. At Duke, Carter is the Director of Communications for the Center for Race Relations and the Marketing and Publicity Chair for Sophomore Class Council. 

All posts by