Heroes & Zeros: Business Roundtable evolves, while Cargill named worst company on earth

Illustration by Kyle Metcalf

Zero: Cargill

Sadly, there is no shortage of choice for the title of Worst Company on Earth. A host of sweatshops surely qualify, as do any number of corrupt corporate kleptocracies, mismanaged monopolies, climate-action-obstructing fossil fuel companies, price-gouging pharmaceutical companies, weapons manufacturers…the list goes on.

The Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Mighty Earth recently took a stab at identifying the ultimate bottom-feeder in environmental governance and decided to award the dubious honour to Cargill, the agri-food giant.

The rap sheet against Cargill, the U.S.’s largest privately owned company, is a long one. In the foreword to Mighty Earth’s 7,000-word report, former U.S. Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman writes: “The people who have been sickened or died from eating contaminated Cargill meat, the child laborers who grow the cocoa Cargill sells for the world’s chocolate, the Midwesterners who drink water polluted by Cargill, the Indigenous People displaced by vast deforestation to make way for Cargill’s animal feed, and the ordinary consumers who’ve paid more to put food on the dinner table because of Cargill’s financial malfeasance – all have felt the impact of this agribusiness giant. Their lives are worse for having come into contact with Cargill.”

The report is especially scathing in regard to Cargill’s role in vast deforestation in Brazil by farmers from whom it buys massive amounts of soybeans (which largely become livestock feed).

Nonetheless, the choice of Cargill is somewhat surprising. Environmental activists even lauded it in the past for agreeing to a moratorium on buying soybeans grown on land stripped of trees in the Amazon rainforest. Cargill received a Leadership in Environment award in 2015 from the Keystone Policy Center, a non-profit.

Cargill stoutly defends itself against Mighty Earth’s charges. It noted in a statement that it donated almost US$60 million to charities in 54 countries and has agreed to a zero-deforestation commitment over a period of time in its cocoa, palm oil and soybean supply chains.

“It’s hard to hear,” Ruth Kimmelshue, the company’s chief sustainability officer, told the New York Times. “It doesn’t feel very good.”

Indeed, some may argue that other companies have a stronger claim to be the world’s worst. But in an era when business people constantly pat each other on the back with awards for excellence, no matter how obscure the achievement, it’s not a bad idea to highlight at least some of those that fall short.


Heroes: Business Roundtable

In August 19, more than 180 of the U.S.’s most powerful businesses broke with a long tradition by pledging to serve not only their owners, but also workers, customers, suppliers and communities. The Business Roundtable, America’s most influential lobby group of corporate leaders, retreated from its longstanding position that corporations exist principally to serve their shareholders.

Yet even as they did so, there was no shortage of evidence that many of these companies – and others – remain squarely focused on maximizing profits and driving up the price of their shares.

On the very same day as the announcement, three tech giants – Amazon, Facebook and Google – vowed to fight a 3% “digital” tax that France imposed earlier this year to counter the companies’ unrelenting efforts to avoid paying their fair share of taxes. A week later, an Oklahoma judge ordered another Roundtable signatory, the pharmaceutical group Johnson & Johnson, to pay US$572 million for its role in causing the opioid crisis that, in his words, had “ravaged” the state.

These are hardly the signs one would expect of a more caring and inclusive business community.

Even so, the Roundtable’s statement signals a welcome break from the past. Its original 1997 mission statement declared, “The paramount duty of management and of boards of directors is to the corporation’s stockholders.” The interests of other stakeholders, like employees or local communities, were only “relevant as a derivative of the duty to stockholders.”

Now, says the Roundtable, “Each of our stakeholders is essential.” To its credit, the new approach recognizes that rising public anger over issues like executive pay (and, more broadly, income inequality), climate change and the opioid crisis has sullied the reputation of business. As Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase’s CEO and Roundtable chair, put it, “the American dream is alive, but fraying.”

The question is how effective the Roundtable’s new approach will be. Corporate Knights has suggested following up on the statement of purpose with concrete commitments to carbon-zero business plans and paying a living wage, for starters. Without these kinds of concrete commitments, World Resources Institute’s Kevin Moss says the Roundtable’s new statement “shows 200 CEOs are stuck in yesteryear’s (corporate social responsibility).”

However true that may be, the Roundtable’s new approach at least enables society to hold businesses to a standard based on more than quarterly earnings and return on investment. Let the scrutiny – and the consequences that flow from it – begin.

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