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Last Words

Sierra Magazine
Last Words

Can Corporations Be Good Citizens?

The companies that advanced the first industrial revolution have left us choking on its consequences-dioxins in the breast milk of every woman on the planet, clearcuts, exhausted fisheries, and weakened biodiversity. But we have an opportunity for a second industrial revolution, in which goods and services are designed not to poison the water, foul the air, or litter the environment with toxics and endocrine disruptors.

Corporations need a charter to operate in each state in which they do business. These charters now require only that businesses obey existing laws. As citizens, we could change them to prohibit actions like habitat destruction or dispersal of toxic substances. Instead of focusing corporate citizenship around compliance, new charters could inspire corporations to lead progressive change.

Dave Olsen, chief executive officer, Patagonia

Citizenship requires a commitment to democracy, but corporations, in their exercise of political power through campaign finance, are antagonistic to democracy. Citizenship requires a commitment to place, but in a globalized economy, place has lost its meaning for corporations. Citizenship also requires a long-term horizon, but corporations define "long term" as the next quarter, not the next quarter century.

Stephen Viederman, president, Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation

Is it in the nature of corporations to oppose a healthy environment and decent working conditions for their employees? Unquestionably. The natural drive of corporations is to place profit before human needs. But that does not mean they cannot be induced-by the threat of losing some of their profit due to a boycott or strike-to change their policies, to pay attention to the environment, to do better by their employees. There is a long history that shows how powerful and selfish corporations can yield, at least a bit, to human needs if there is sufficient pressure from consumers and employees.

Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States

A corporation can't be a good citizen or a bad citizen. It carries no passport. It can't serve on a jury of my peers. It can't pull the curtain behind itself in a voting booth and vote. (Although it surely can, and does, determine the outcome of elections.) Corporations are creations of the state and we as citizens have the right, and duty, to ensure they do no harm. We have failed as citizens. And we pay the price every day.

Russell Mokhiber, editor, Corporate Crime Reporter

Sponsoring day care, employee training, and other virtuous programs can help corporations boost their bottom line. But a true movement of corporate responsibility must unite populists, unions, environmentalists, and community groups with visionary businesses to regulate the global financial casino that fuels corporate irresponsibility; recharter corporations as nonpersons accountable to real people; limit the manic corporate takeover of schools, health care, and media; fight for employee/community ownership and sustainable growth; and contest all undemocratic forms of corporate power.

Charles Derber, author of Corporation Nation

Corporations can behave responsibly. Laws and policies as well as greater competition for resources will demand sustainable behavior. We are already seeing a turnaround. Corporations that have spent the 1990s fighting such instruments of sustainability as eco-label certification are beginning to moderate their opposition, chastened by their failed efforts in such forums as the World Trade Organization.

Arthur Weissman, president, Green Seal

The terms "corporate citizen" and "corporate responsibility" imply that corporate officials should have the right to define responsible behavior. I favor corporate accountability wherein we the people define corporations' operating parameters, rewarding or sanctioning them based on our standards of environmental sustainability, human rights, and community goals. The economy should serve the people and the earth. Today, most of us are servants to it.

Jim Price, senior regional staff director, Sierra Club Southeast office

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