Is it ethical to work for a big company?

Our ethical columnist explains why he sometimes works with multinationals - to subvert them from within.

Ethan Greenhart

Topics Politics

Dear Ethan,

I read your column every week and find your advice inspiring. However, I don’t feel I can truly live a planet-friendly lifestyle because I work for a multinational corporation. I want to practice ethical living – but how do I earn an ethical living?

Ford Taylor,

Dear Ford,

You’re right to feel bad about working for a multinational. Big business is even more responsible for environmental destruction than the feckless masses shovelling greasy food into their mouths and sickly television into their brains (when they can tear themselves away from copulating, of course). Nature is being crushed, often literally, by the wheels of industry. The corporations rip up the earth for oil and metals, tear down the ever-shrinking forests for timber and suck the life from the soil for food. And when they are done, they produce terrible machines to cast fumes across the planet so that if the beautiful plants and creatures aren’t crushed to death or covered in concrete, they’ll be scorched by the ever-rising temperatures.

However, as wartime shows us, there is collaboration, and then there is infiltration. You can support The Machine, or you can subvert it. I know many people who commit petty acts of sabotage to bring their company to a standstill; computer viruses can be very effective in this regard. You may even passively resist by not doing any work and by distracting others.

There are limits to this approach, though, because it only works on an individual level (apart from the computer virus thing and really, they do get kind of pissed off with that kind of thing and the police get involved and sometimes you wonder whether taking down the claims handling department of a small insurance company for two hours is really worth all the hassle especially when you have a wife who doesn’t always understand the importance of your work). What we really need to do is to persuade The Beast to stop its relentless destruction of the planet. That’s why I decided that I could, with a clear conscience, become an corporate environmental responsibility consultant. I provide ethical advice not just to the individual, here in this column, but to companies, too.

If you want to know how big business can change its ways, look no further than dear Anita Roddick, who died this week. Here was a woman saying ‘NO!’ to animal experimentation and ‘YES!’ to protecting our natural environment. Some will say that such things were superficial. After all, she was filthy rich – especially after she sold out to that big French cosmetics firm (I must admit, I wept a little when I heard about that). But she showed us the way. She was the thin end of the wedge. I’m the thick one.

Of course, many readers will be thinking that all I’m doing is allowing monstrous organisations to get away with murder by giving them a fig leaf of respectability. This is nonsense. I’m laying down Nature’s Law in a way where they cannot squirm out of their responsibility without making their guilt clear for all to see. So, for example, a few months ago I talked to the board of one corporate behemoth to explain that nothing less than a zero carbon footprint was acceptable. Allowing their products to produce any emissions was completely wrong if we were to save the planet. Unfortunately, my words fell on deaf ears, but Sheba did point out that such a message was unlikely to fit in with the business model of a luxury car manufacturer. (Can I just add that the corporate social responsibility person at that particular firm was very enthusisastic about my comments and described me as ‘a visionary’. We really can’t have enough CSR people, so it’s good to see so many companies employing more of them.)

Sometimes I try to do more interactive presentations. For example, at my first ethical consultancy session, I brought a pot of red paint and asked each of the participants to dip their hands in it. ‘Consumption is murder. To sell goods is to trade in death. DO YOU SEE? WE’VE ALL GOT BLOOD ON OUR HANDS!’ Some of those round the table were in tears by the end of the session. Sheba said I should never have abused the opportunity the volunteers at the charity shop were giving me to practice, but you can never get the message out too often.

These days, I feel I have become more sophisticated. In many ways, I get my message across simply making strict demands about the conditions I am prepared to speak under. For example, I never allow the use of energy in rooms where I’ll be talking. Lights, air conditioning, heating, water coolers, computers (unless solar powered), projectors – all these things must be OFF when I come. That sends out a message straightaway. As those executives sweat or shiver, suffering a severe case of Powerpoint impotence, they start to get a sense of just how urgent this problem really is.

I’ve tried to get whole offices to shut down while I’m in the building, but to no avail. Apparently, time is money. Perhaps these executives have forgotten that money is the root of all evil. Applying some elementary algebra, time is therefore the root of all evil. This makes no sense at all. Perhaps that explains the irrationality of capitalism.

I’ve come to realise that the path of the prophet is never an easy one. A voice in the boardroom can sometimes feel like a voice in the wilderness. But there are so many ways in which we can be less wasteful in the office. The toilet is a good example. Is it really necessary to flush after every use? Surely businesses could set up a system whereby toilets are only flushed once a day? Not only would this conserve water, it would also remind everyone of the consequences of their consumption. Nor do people need to wash their hands – why napalm some harmless bacteria with handwash when they can happily co-habit with our fingers?

The biggest barrier to my consultancy work is the travelling. Getting to the far-flung offices of these big companies is a nightmare. If they all had to travel by human-powered transport, these businessmen (they’re almost always men – only women who’ve lost all touch with their nuturing side would ever be involved in mainstream, unethical businesses) would soon realise the impracticality of their business models. They’d shut up shop and we’d all return to living in small, money-free communities where barter ruled. But until that happy day, Ford, you must try your best to be less of a cog in the machine and more of a spanner in the works.

Ethan Greenhart is here to answer all your questions about ethical living in the twenty-first century. Email him at {encode=”” title=””}. Read his earlier columns here.

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Topics Politics


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