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The Planet

    "Focusing on corporations diversifies our toolbox, it keeps us from having all our eggs in the basket of public policy. We're not abandoning public policy, but supplementing it."

"That's where the money is."

So goes one of the most famous answers of the 20th century, uttered by Willie Sutton when asked why he robbed banks.

A modified version of Sutton's pragmatism might serve those Sierra Club activists who are directly targeting corporations that are harming the environment.

Why corporations? That's where the power is.

To be sure, Club volunteers and staff still devote the bulk of their energy to influencing government officials and entities. But as political and economic power shifts in this age of globalization from the nation-state to the transnational corporation, so, too, do the targets of pressure campaigns. There are a variety of efforts afoot within the Club to influence corporations directly -- through boycotts, shareholder resolutions, purchasing advisories, public education and the all-encompassing favorite: making them look bad when they do wrong.

At gas stations across North America, Club members and allies are boycotting Shell Oil because of the company's complicity in environmental and human rights abuses in Nigeria. In April, Club members from Georgia and Florida journeyed to Du Pont's annual shareholders meeting in Delaware to push a shareholder resolution urging the company to abandon its plans for a titanium dioxide mine on the edge of the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge.

Along the Hudson River north of New York City, Club activists are pressuring General Electric to clean up the PCBs the company has dumped in the river. In Columbia, Miss., the Club worked with the Jesus People Against Pollution to confront Reichhold Chemical, the owner of an abandoned turpentine plant leaking toxic effluent. And in New Orleans, the Club has shined the spotlight on Freeport McMoRan, which operates the world's largest gold mine and third-largest copper mine in Indonesia's Irian Jaya and has poisoned the island's rivers with mine waste.

"Corporations are very sensitive to image," says Jim Price, staff director of the Club's Southeast field office in Birmingham, Ala. Price has presented more than two dozen corporate-accountability workshops in the last three years. "When we focus public attention on the malfeasance of corporations and say they're not being good citizens, they're going to want to correct that image. The key is to be sure they change their behavior, not just their image."

Directly challenging corporations represents a new front for the Club. Price says that part of the impetus for this approach grew out of the Club's environmental justice work in the South. Residents in Columbia, Miss., who lived near an abandoned turpentine plant that had blown up and leaked whenever it rained, had become increasingly frustrated working with the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency. Several years ago, when a story in Sierra magazine targeted the party responsible for the site, Reichhold Chemical, which has over 40 Superfund sites, the company's CEO was deluged with letters and he agreed to meet with the community. (The residents got part of what they wanted -- health monitoring -- but did not get relocated, as they had hoped.)

Meanwhile, Mike McCloskey, Sierra Club chairman and former executive director, was finding that direct pressure could pay off when trying to stop environmentally damaging development projects in other countries. A letter-writing campaign organized by the Sierra Club pressured Citicorp to deny a loan for a mammoth dam on the Amazon River in Brazil. By joining a boycott of skiing in Austria, the Club helped stop a proposed dam on the Danube River.

McCloskey has been pushing within the Club for a greater emphasis on this approach. In February 1997, he and directors Michele Perrault and Susan Holmes presented a briefing to the Board on corporate accountability. Last year, the Club included as one of its campaign goals, for the first time, to "hold polluting industries accountable by publicizing their records of pollution."

"We want to clean up pollution," McCloskey says. "Might we get more payoff for our efforts by lobbying the Republican-controlled Congress or by directly pressuring companies?"

He acknowledges that activist culture is oriented toward influencing public policy. "But we're not talking about abandoning public policy, rather about supplementing it. Focusing on corporations diversifies our toolbox, it keeps us from having all our eggs in the basket of public policy."

The Club's initial forays into corporate accountability have mostly been attempts to influence a specific company to fix or prevent a particular environmental problem -- like trying to stop Du Pont's planned mine. In addition there are efforts to improve overall environmental performance of an entire industry. This characterizes the Club's efforts to steer the auto industry toward greater fuel efficiency (see ClubBeat, page 7) and to prod corporate hog and chicken factories into stopping their pollution of rivers and streams.

But there's no one way to do it. "We usually conceptualize our relationship with business as either being in bed with the company or being a relentless adversary," says McCloskey. "Those are the ends of the spectrum, but there are strategies we need to explore in between."

He notes, for example, the opportunity to build relationships with companies, to take advantage of the tremendous growth within the industrial sector of in-house environmental staff. "Most of these people are devoted to better performance," he says, "sometimes without support from the company. In the end, yes, they work for the people who pay them, but they provide a point of contact and they know what we're talking about."

And we can't just criticize corporations, cautions McCloskey. "When a company does the right thing, we have to recognize that, too, which is what we did when Honda announced its almost-zero-emission car."

Another path the Club is exploring is how to use consumer clout to "reward" companies and products that are more environmentally sound. This can be as simple as using paper with a high level of post-consumer waste content or as complicated as certifying Mitsubishi's timber practices in tropical forests.

Of course, much of what the Club has been doing for decades could be characterized as holding corporations accountable. What is the Clean Water Act, if not a tool to keep corporations from polluting waterways? Pressuring the government to pass and enforce good laws will continue to be the Club's primary focus. Unfortunately, environmentalists have mostly been playing defense lately -- working to stop measures that would increase corporate power, like takings legislation or regulatory reform. The most insidious of these -- still under deliberation in Paris -- is the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, which would give corporations broad new powers at the expense of local and national governments.

"Corporate-accountability campaigns can raise the visibility of egregious corporate behavior and help to mobilize citizens," says Ruth Caplan, Club volunteer and former co-chair of Alliance for Democracy, "but unless we stop corporate power grabs, like the MAI, the Club's ability to go after corporations directly will be drastically undermined."

This brings us quickly to the limits of corporate-accountability campaigns and the tough underlying issues of how much power corporations wield, not just to run their businesses, but to dominate public policy.

It's not just that corporations are huge -- a September 1996 report by the Institute for Policy Studies found that 51 of the world's 100 largest economies were transnational corporations -- or that they received more than $50 billion in direct subsidies from the U.S. federal government in 1994 (according to the Office of Management and Budget). But because of their size and power, they end up controlling -- through campaign contributions, among other things -- those democratic institutions that are supposed to control them.

But as John Klotz, a New York City lawyer and member of the Club's Corporate Accountability Network, says, "In a democracy, the only way to truly address corporate power is through public policy."

It's a vicious circle: To challenge corporate power, citizen groups have to use democratic institutions, which are too often beholden to corporate interests.

That's why for Price, making corporations accountable has to start with overhauling our current campaign-finance system.

In the short run, corporate-accountability campaigns give citizen groups a new tool. In the long run, how sharp and effective that tool is will depend on our success in addressing the bigger issue of corporate influence on public policy.

"It's not just our environment and public health that are endangered," says Price, "but democracy itself."

For more information: Contact Jim Price to find out more about the Club's corporate accountability workshops: (205) 933-9111;

Resources: There are dozens of Web sites that explore corporate accountability. Here are some of them:

Multinational Monitor:
Corporate Accountability Project:
Corporate Watch:

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