Unilever has such a nice image

But is it complicit with the TTIP process?

Articles like this one in the Guardian have celebrated the virtues and actions of Unilever in both environmental and social fields. And it is true that they have done a number of positive things and Paul Polman, their CEO, seems personally committed to sustainability. You would have thought that Unilever would therefore not be in favour of a process like the TTIP which threatens food safety and democracy on a large scale.

But it looks as though either he does not really have a grip on the organisation or he is a very cynical manipulator. The fact is that large food companies and other agri-business corporations are amongst the most active lobbyists involved in the TTIP process. True, it is very difficult to find out exactly what is going on, but certainly Food and Drink Europe (which represents the likes of Nestle and Unilever) seems to be one of the most active lobbyists.

Is Food and Drink Europe properly representing Unilever’s views? Is Unilever happy with the whole thrust of the TTIP process? There appears to be nothing on the Unilever website that  mentions TTIP.

So I wonder what is going on?


Can corporate affairs be justified?

Can ‘corporate diplomacy’ ever deliver an enduring social licence to operate? See my review of Witold Henisz’ book on corporate diplomacy here. The review looks at the limitations of the business case for delivering true accountability.


What attitude should companies take to Russia?

Russia has annexed Crimea – what is a company to do about it? Russia has ignored due process in annexing the Crimea, yet the level of popular support for Russia in the Crimea seems very high. And Ukraine is clearly split – but then it has been tossed between higher powers, like so much of Europe, for much of the past millennium.

No doubt there will be some companies that are instructed to implement the sanctions that the US and EU have agreed – but what about all the others? Should they show solidarity with the West in some way? Should that follow the precedent of the sanctions – effectively  harassing Russian citizens? Would it mean avoiding business with Russia? Should energy companies seek alternative supplies of gas, for example? And perhaps those companies with ties to Russia should do the reverse? Should Russian-owned football clubs stage pro-Russia events?

That would simply inflame the situation.

In reaction, some will say that companies have no business in politics and want to get on with business as usual, avoiding politics altogether. Yet it is probably just the same companies that are busy lobbying governments hard behind the scenes to legislate in their interest. Isn’t that political?

And there are some political situations that are so horrific that action by companies seems entirely justified: the apartheid era in South Africa was one. Yet even in this case there was considerable debate about whether the sanctions hurt the very people they were designed to help. Of course in such cases much will depend on what the people affected actually want to happen.

There are a few lessons here:

  1. political situations by their nature are extremely complex and always different – so there are no general rules for action, or for inaction
  2. the fact that there are no rules does not mean that companies can just ignore such issues; they have a moral duty to work out what their attitude should be
  3. it is reasonable to ask any company (for which the Russian situation is relevant) just what their attitude towards Russia may be.

How transparent is it possible to be?

Vodafone is trying to put pressure on the government to allow it to disclose requests for wiretaps. Vodafone aims to follow in the footsteps of Google which has been issuing ‘transparency reports’ for a few years.

As the Guardian reports, UK regulations make even the disclosure of the existence of warrants an offence. The current Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act has cover-up built-in. Neither those requesting a warrant nor those subject to them (like Vodafone) are permitted to disclose even the existence of a request, let alone its contents.

Vodafone is to be commended for taking this stance. It is nice to hear about lobbying for the good. Their intention, apparently, is to include an analysis of information requests in their sustainability report. Crucially this would include disclosing whatever they legally can, and saying what it is that they cannot say. I would recommend going ahead with that: if the UK section turns out to say ‘nothing can be disclosed about government requests for information in the UK’ then we will at least know where the problem is…

However it is odd that there is currently no mention of this new approach on Vodafone’s website. Why is there no official announcement from Vodafone? Perhaps old habits die hard.


Transparency of lobbying?

The new Draft UK Bill on lobbying is a second rate offering. Key loopholes include:

  • lobbyists must only register if they communicate with a Minister – other officials, however important, do not count
  • all local and regional government lobbying is excluded from the register
  • the register will only capture lobbying initiated by lobbyists. So if a Minister calls in a lobbyist, that need not be declared
  • there will be a threshold for lobbying registrations – so ‘small’ jobs or lobbying companies needn’t be registered. This could be used to conceal important lobbying exercises
  • the content of the register will not include the details of what the lobbying was all about.

The last point especially makes this Bill inferior to the US controls on lobbying on which it seems to have been modeled. No wonder David Cameron said lobbying was the next big scandal waiting to happen!



Companies: too much like citizens

How much do we want to share our democracy with companies? There’s no doubt a place for companies to make stuff and sell it – but should there be a place for them to pay for political parties and influence party policies? Individuals have the right to petition and influence their rulers, but should companies also have it? At the moment, companies do it freely. It is called lobbying.

As David Cameron has said, lobbying “exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money…in some cases MPs are approached more than 100 times a week by lobbyists.” So we might guess that irrespective of any corporate donations to the Conservative Party, David Cameron is probably itching to remove Lynton Crosby from the ranks of party advisers. Just so that there can be no perception that the failure to implement tobacco controls or alcohol limits has anything to do with lobbying.

What about the companies involved? A search of the Philip Morris website for the term ‘lobbying’ returns no results. Do the same thing on BAT’s website and this page turns up. So there are different levels of awareness out there that transparency over lobbying is part of what earns a company its licence to operate.

Perhaps the phrase ‘corporate citizenship’ should not just elicit a warm and fuzzy feeling. As I have argued before, it also has its dangers.


What went wrong at Rio?

How did it happen that Rio+20 is universally seen as a failure? The best that can be said is that it was a disappointment. And Greenpeace’s view of the agreement is vitriolic:

“Gone from the Rio agreement is a commitment to end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. Gone is any clear commitment to protect our oceans from over-fishing and pollution. The money needed to pay for clean energy, and to ensure that the growing world population has access to decent food and clean water, is no-where to be seen. Again, our leaders have reminded us that whilst cash can be found to pursue wars and to rescue banks, nothing is left to help billions of people out of poverty or protect the ecosystems upon which human life ultimately depends.”

The most interesting explanation comes from Gro Harlem Brundtland, who agreed with the suggestion of the BBC that the power of corporations was a key part of the problem. But so little transparency is there over how corporations lobby that we don’t even know who lobbied whom – let alone what they said.


Lobbying: forked tongues in action

Global Witness has pointed out that some companies are lobbying both for and against dealing with conflict minerals.

While some companies that use minerals such as tanatalum and tungsten are working within industry bodies to implement the US Dodd Frank Act requirement for supply chain audit for conflict minerals from West Africa, others in industry bodies, such as the US Chamber of Commerce, appear to be doing the reverse. And even worse, some companies belong to both industry groups.

Does such apparent duplicity result from ignorance or conspiracy? In other words, is one department busy trying to improve matters while another is pushing commercial interests for all its worth? Or is it a result of a cynical attempt to generate confusion, so that the company can do what it wants unnoticed?

Neither explanation is very palatable for the companies concerned. But from the public point of view, I would rather it was ignorance – conspiracy is so much harder to deal with.