The sustainability con

Multinationals in China flag up their green credentials in order to dodge a far more serious matter: labour rights.

Ethan Epstein

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‘Sustainability may be the word that is said more than any other these days’, the British executive mused to me in his corner office: ‘We are very concerned with being green and sustainable.’

While this may sound like standard corporate boilerplate, the location of this VP’s office was indicative of the broad shift currently underway: we were sitting in downtown Shanghai, the boisterous heart of capitalist China. ‘Green’ – except perhaps in the fiduciary sense – is not a word that we’ve come to associate with the Middle Kingdom.

It is a word, however, that we have come to associate with elite opinion-makers from Tokyo to London to San Francisco. Indeed, from the new lines of environmentally friendly clothing, to the massive marches, to the intercontinental concerts, ‘green’ has become the cause célèbre of the well-meaning people – and corporations – of the First World. And now, quite suddenly, it’s all the rage in Beijing and Shanghai, as well: the myriad companies operating here are increasingly trumpeting their supposed fealty to the demands of ‘sustainability’.

Browse through the website or media kit of any multinational operating in China, or speak with executives operating here, and you will find that the references to ‘green’ abound. The ‘CSR’ (corporate social responsibility) section of any corporate website is rife with self-congratulatory statements about environmentalism. A brief survey finds that a broad cross-section of companies across multiple sectors are getting in on the act: technical manufacturers like Eaton, construction and development firms like CB Richard Ellis, and even retail giants like the dread Wal-Mart are now proudly proclaiming just how very green their operations here are.

The Chinese government is aggressively pursuing the green mantle as well. Beijing loudly advertised last year’s Olympic Games as being ‘green’. (It also advertised it as a ‘smoke-free’ Olympics, which anyone who has ever been to China will find difficult to believe.) Recently, the government has set aggressive new targets to reduce the country’s dependence on coal-fired power plants. Beijing is even considering blocking GM’s sale of Hummer to a Chinese company on the grounds that it does not comport with the new, green image that the country is trying to project.

While staying at a Shanghai hotel last month, I was surprised to find a note excoriating me to use my towels multiple times in order to save water and therefore be environmentally friendly; a suggestion I had previously come across only in hotels in Japan, North America and Western Europe. Representatives from the Arsenal of Democracy have lauded the Chinese dictatorship’s newly green shade: US secretary of state Hillary Clinton famously stated on a visit to Beijing in February that human rights controversies cannot interfere with pressing ahead with action on the ‘global economic crisis [and] the global climate change crisis’.

But while they boast loudly about their green operations, multinationals operating here remain deafeningly silent on other issues of corporate social responsibility – those of the more anthropocentric kind. By all accounts, labour rights in China remain almost non-existent, and pay pitifully low. (Despite the fact that corporate-ese has stopped referring to China as a ‘low cost’ market, and a ‘high value’ market instead, we all know that companies set up shop here because the pay is so low.) Work hours are onerous, and conditions all too often dangerous.

Even those who celebrate the economic development and subsequent empowerment brought to Chinese people over the past few decades (and I am certainly one of those) concede this point. Take the recent review of Factory Girls, which appeared in this magazine: while making a convincing argument about the benefits of economic development, the article also noted that Chinese factory workers often work 12-hour shifts in terrible conditions (see China’s factory girls: nobody’s victims, by Neil Davenport). Additionally, access to healthcare for workers is limited and often too expensive, particularly in the under-served areas outside of the major coastal cities.

These labour rights issues are not dealt with as issues of ‘social responsibility’ by multinationals operating here: in fact, judging by the definition that they themselves provide, it appears that corporations here see being ‘green’ as the only form of responsibility they have. Green has become a cover to dodge other, more human-centred, responsibilities. One can see this phenomenon taking place at a complementary level with the Chinese government: the human rights situation in China remains deplorable, yet the government is feted by liberal democracies because of its rhetoric about ‘climate change’.

This is not to say that China is not polluted – it is, and, in some places, terribly so. Many of its rivers are filled with toxic waste and sewage, the majority of its power plants continue to spew coal, and the air in many of its cities is choked with smog. Indeed, I had been living in Beijing for some months in 2002 before I realised that the capital is surrounded by mountains; it was only after a violent rain storm that enough smog was washed away to make the peaks visible. But companies here now are treating vague notions of ‘green’ as their only responsibility, to the detriment of more pressing matters of basic worker rights and safety.

The trendy environmentalist left of the First World is complicit in this bait and switch. By elevating ‘green’ issues over the apparently less sexy subject of labour rights, today’s liberals are markedly silent in the face of the exploitation of working men and women in developing economies. With the exception of the recent furore over the Iranian election (coincidentally, a ‘green’ issue in itself), the contemporary North American and European left is rarely bestirred by issues of labour and rights.

The newfound and politically expedient claims of sustainability are not models of real corporate responsibility. We would be green ourselves to believe so.

Ethan Epstein is a business writer based in Shanghai.

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