Corporate power: how do we prevent the detrimental social and environmental implications?
By Lola Taylor
At some point in your personal life, it is likely you have made a conscious effort to help society on a micro-level. Maybe you have tried to recycle more often, or you have given to someone less fortunate than you. But to what extent are individual lifestyle changes helpful to large-scale issues facing global society? Is it possible for these individual actions to change the course of climate change or worldwide inequalities?
Whilst our own efforts to combat inequality and climate change are valuable to some degree, transnational corporations hold the most power to tackling these global issues. According to The Guardian in 2019, just four global corporations are responsible for more than 10% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1965. These four investor-owned companies are: Chevron, Exxon, BP and Shell.
Not only are the environmental impacts of global corporations detrimental, but social issues are also prevalent. Multinational clothing brands, for example, are continuously exploiting workers and using sweatshops in the name of fast fashion. Adidas is one example of a global company that is committing these corporate crimes: a report from the China Labor Watch found that Adidas supplier factories still had “excessive working hours and extremely low wages” in 2010.
Even with loose codes of conduct and labour laws in place, multinationals are privately owned by CEOs and shareholders – ultimately meaning they are still able to exploit workers and significantly contribute to climate change as they are not strictly regulated. Some would argue that the final goal of these corporations and their shareholders is to maximise their profit, and sometimes that involves using practices that are detrimental to our planet or humanity. But these corporations are only gaining more power over societies, and with that scale of power, shouldn’t a level of social responsibility be maintained?
From a sociological perspective, we can consider the corporation as the most dominant economic institution of our time. According to the research organisation Global Justice Now, 157 of top 200 economic entities are corporations. C.Wright Mills’ power-elite model outlines that the ruling-class consists of the government, big businesses and the military – but it’s clear that our global economy and everyday lives are now dictated by corporations. With this in mind, we can consider the concept that the power-elite model may have evolved over time, corporations can now be considered to make up the ruling-class in global, 21st century society.
King and Pearce (2010) concluded that markets are inherently political, partially due to their “ties to the regulatory functions of the state”. Markets can no longer be regarded as entirely separate entities from the state, therefore the issue of corporate social responsibility is political and should be treated as such. The corporate end-goal of maximising profit is destroying our environment and ruining livelihoods in developing nations – this itself, is a global political issue we should all be paying attention to.
So, where can we target our anger? We may, as individuals, lack the power to entirely change the course of climate change or stop ongoing corporate exploitation, but we can still hold these corporations accountable. Boycotting companies and pressurising governments to place heavier regulations on corporate entities can change the outcome of detrimental corporate plans. One example of successful boycotting is when Greenpeace organised a media campaign to stop the leading oil company Shell from sinking the Brent Spar oil platform in the North Sea. Consumer boycotts of Shell petrol lead to a substantial fall in sales and as a result, Shell made a drastic U-turn and did not sink the platform. Organisations such as the Asia Floor Wage Alliance have placed pressure on global corporations to increase living wages for employees in developing nations – another example of successful corporate pressure to instigate change.
Whilst our abilities as individuals are limited, we must continue to hold corporations responsible for their detrimental impacts on our humanity and our planet. We can boycott companies; we can educate ourselves on ethical consumerism. We are not socially responsible for the way in which our capitalist society is formed, but in some ways – as consumers – we hold the most power.