The ICC and the Mechanical Bull

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This article was first published as "The International Chamber of Commerce and the Mechanical Bull", PR Watch, volume 9, number 3, Third Quarter 2002. The original article was authored by Laura Miller and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.


"Did I tie this right?" an Asian businessman asked me, pointing at a red bandana around his neck. I had just been watching the milling international crowd. It was an amusing scene--the world's business elite tying red and blue bandanas around their necks, posing for pictures atop mechanical bulls and with costumed "Old West" show girls, queuing up for barbecued ribs and chicken, all leading up to a rodeo exhibition sponsored by Coors Brewing, 3M, and Wells Fargo.

The site for the evening's festivities was a rodeo arena in Denver, Colorado surrounded by train yards, grain elevators, and stockyards. It was a bit of a contrast from the air-conditioned, conference-center environs where actual meetings were held and plans were discussed during the 34th World Congress of the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC). The ICC's May meeting brought together nearly 700 corporate participants from 72 countries to remind themselves, or perhaps convince themselves, that liberalized markets and free trade will save the world.

Riding the bull

Like the pictures taken alongside the mechanical bull, however, the conference itself was largely a staged event. Nobody actually wanted to ride the bull, and nothing of substance seemed to happen at the conference. The documents that came out of the conference had all been written beforehand. Decisions were made in advance by small committees.

The Hong Kong businessman in the red bandana told me that this was his first ICC conference. He was impressed by the attention which China, and Asia in general, were receiving. Until now, US and European corporations have controlled the business lobby group, whose main office is in Paris. But with China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), eyes have shifted to the East. Still, Asia did not dominate the main discussions of the meeting. Instead, central honors were reserved for rhetorical commitments to the world's poor (none of whom were actually present, of course). The needs of the poor, we were told, can best be served by promoting "corporate responsibility."

During the three-day conference, I heard much from businessmen about corporate social responsibility, the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, and private sector partnerships. Conference participants seemed genuine in their concern about environmental degradation, hunger, poor sanitation and lack of drinking water for the world's poor. Many sincerely believed that companies can improve these conditions and find ICC's promotion of corporate responsibility reassuring, especially as they face criticisms from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and protests at large globalization meetings. Unfortunately, the ICC was vague on specifics of how it could address these problems.

Whose Responsibility Is It?

"A growing number of companies approach corporate responsibility as a comprehensive set of values and principles," says a glossy ICC pamphlet, "which are integrated in business operations through management policies and practices and decision-making processes. ICC proposes the following definition of corporate responsibility from a business perspective: 'The voluntary commitment by business to manage its activities in a responsible way.'"

The pamphlet containing these phrases was distributed prior to a large panel discussion titled, "Responsible business conduct--to whom should business be answerable?" The moderator opened the discussion by saying that the definition of "responsible" business is open to different interpretations from CEOs, NGOs, businesses, and the governments of developed and developing nations. The ICC pamphlet agrees: "There is no single, commonly accepted definition of the concept of corporate responsibility, also referred to as corporate social responsibility, responsible business conduct, corporate citizenship, voluntary corporate initiatives, etc. ICC prefers the terms responsible business conduct and voluntary corporate initiatives." The pamphlet's definition of good behavior also avoids any statements on ethics or universal human rights. It states, "ICC applauds the primacy accorded to human rights by the United Nations; however, the making and enforcement of laws for protecting human rights are tasks for governments."

This lack of definition and emphasis on "voluntary" initiatives clearly suits the public relations objectives of corporations, which want to create a feel-good aura for themselves while avoiding any specific, verifiable commitments that might constrain their behavior. The ICC's preferred terminology--"responsible business conduct"--omits the "social" from "social responsibility," a subtle but telling indicator of the limitations to its vision. The more I listened to the speakers at the ICC conference, the more it seemed that businesses' primary responsibility was simply to succeed in business.

The panel discussion on responsible business featured scant self-reflection about bad business conduct. Instead, the spotlight was on companies that already claimed to be practicing corporate responsibility. Panelists offered different interpretations of the concept, but all agreed that it must be undertaken on a voluntary basis.

Voluntary initiatives will work, the ICC argues, because the drive for profits will itself motivate companies to behave responsibly. "Responsible business conduct may place companies in a more favourable legal and political environment, improve their public image, give them a strategic advantage over competitors in the long-term and help them to make their management systems more effective," it says.

Those Crazy Protesters

"I often tell people we've got the wrong target when we target multinationals as the problem. We have to make them vectors of solutions," said ICC Secretary General Maria Livanos Cattaui during a press conference meant as a pre-emptive strike against a demonstration planned by organized labor. If there are problems for workers, she said, the International Labor Organization is where they should be addressed and not the ICC. "[I]f that forum isn't working, fix the forum. Don't keep adding new international organizations when there's one out there. Fix the forum," Cattaui said.

ICC spokesman Bryce Corbett repeated the common "we're misunderstood" theme. "These kinds of protests go in with the best intentions, but they're maybe a little ill informed," he told Business News. "I don't think they have any clue what's going on inside the meeting there."

The protesters, of course, hadn't been invited, and in fact considerable resources were devoted to keeping them out. According to the Rocky Mountain News, Denver spent nearly $1 million on security for the conference, which was held in a downtown hotel behind steel crowd-control fences and surrounded by police. I was able to get in as an accredited journalist, but I had to show a photo ID, have my bags searched and step through a metal detector to get into the hotel lobby.

About 500 union members, community activists, and anarchists demonstrated against the ICC meeting. The protest featured speakers from El Salvador and Mexico who have not seen the "wealth" promised by free-market boosters. They described wages too low to live on, uncertain and abusive working conditions, jobs lost to privatization, and retaliation for unionizing. Far from misunderstanding the work of ICC, demonstration organizers link these problems to the trade policies supported by ICC.

"We've just become familiar [with ICC] over the last few weeks," said Denver Area Labor Federation president Leslie Moody. "We've read a lot of the stuff that they have on their web site--some of the policies that they advocate for. A lot of it really is contrary to what we advocate for in terms of protecting workers and having government and business work together to improve working standards." Moody disagreed with ICC's emphasis on voluntary corporate responsibility. "We want to make sure that there is some standard that's being upheld across borders when business is talking about how to grow," she said.

ICC worked hard to be accessible to media before, during and after the demonstration, and panelists at the conference inside spoke with a great deal of knowledge about the media and their desire to be involved in shaping public opinion. Public relations techniques, such as labeling critics "irrational" and using "independent" third party advocates, were also evident.

"The total organization of the economy and our business' future is at stake," said Francois Perigot, president of the International Organization of Employers and former chair of the European business lobby UNICE. "Convincing opponents is a formidable task. First of all, because they don't care what we are saying. . . . The more you talk, the more you say, the more evidence you give, they don't believe. They have other evidence. So I say the direction is very, very limited. Secondly, because their attitude is not only irrational, but is totally emotional, there is very little you can do against emotion. How can you discuss with emotional people? These movements are purely emotional."

The Skeptical Environmentalist

Another critique of NGOs came from Bjorn Lomborg, the associate professor of statistics at the University of Aarhus (Denmark) whose book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, has made him a current darling of the anti-environmental right wing. Lomborg, whose attempt to debunk environmental groups like Greenpeace has been panned in leading scientific publications including Science, Nature and Scientific American, has nevertheless been knighted as a "global leader for tomorrow" by the World Economic Forum.

Like the labor protesters outside, NGOs were also not invited to the ICC congress but were often mentioned as a source of concern regarding public opinion. "It's important to say that sometimes NGOs overinterpret or falsely represent data, but mostly they actually use data fairly reasonably," Lomborg admitted. "The thing that I'm trying to point out is that NGOs are like business organizations. They are interest groups. They are basically trying to promote an interest."

The problem, Lomborg said, is that NGOs have more credibility than corporations in public debates, because the public perceives business claims as self-serving. "The problem is that most people actually believe them [NGOs] above government scientists and university researchers. And there is a clear failure to understand that these are also interest groups, and we should certainly hear them, but we shouldn't necessarily take them as purveyors of the proverbial truth."

The WTO Needs You

The success of the World Trade Organization's new round of talks, launched at their November 2001 meeting, was of much concern to many conference panelists. ICC members were urged to do everything they could to shore up the credibility of the WTO. "The WTO needs the champions in the private sector to defend public only hears the critics and support for trade is cool. Citizens, businesses and governments must build support for WTO's work."

Marchi admitted that WTO's operations are "antiquated" in terms of "engaging and transparency and releasing of documentation." But, he said, "The WTO should strive to reform those procedures." While saying that governments need to take the lead on transparency, Marchi believed the WTO's image would benefit by supporting governments in doing so. "If in fact the WTO is as important as we say it is," Marchi said, "it needs to complement the work of national governments in terms of transparency and therefore facilitating greater public support in return."

What Is Changing? And What Isn't?

"The world's expectations of us are changing," said Lord Holme of Cheltenham, an advisor to the Rio Tinto mining company, chairman of the ICC Environment Commission, vice-chair of Business Action for Sustainable Development, and a member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. With more information instantly available from all corners of the world, he said, business leaders are experiencing "less deference and trust" and "more cynicism and suspicion of actions of powerful entities."

Citizens of developed countries are actively and effectively challenging business in the court of public opinion. In this context, ICC's embrace of "corporate responsibility" is a strategic, defensive move aimed at co-opting the language of NGOs.

But do words like "transparency," "accountability," "principles," "responsibility" and "inclusivity" signify a real change in business practices? While these broad ideas were floated by panelists, meaningful definitions of the words and how they should be practiced were lacking. Speakers at the ICC Congress claimed that trade liberalization will decrease poverty but never provided any evidence to support this contention and were quick to assign blame elsewhere when alluding to failures of current and past liberalization policies.

The main change that was evident at the ICC Congress was that transnational corporations, in particular the industry giants, are feeling increased pressure to defend their enormous control over wealth and resources. They need to convince the world that increasing disparity and environmental degradation aren't that bad and that what are beginning to look like corporate fiefdoms are somehow beneficial to all, and not just to the few who rule them.

The Road to Johannesburg

The ICC's newfound preoccupation with "responsibility" is part of a corporate PR buildup to the 10th anniversary of the United Nations' World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), also known as Rio+10. The WSSD, scheduled for August 26-September 4, has been billed as a 10th anniversary follow-up to the UN's Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The WSSD is seen by some activists as an opportunity to "re-dedicate ourselves to the goals of Rio and to avoid the mistakes made since the first Earth Summit." The business community, however, sees the event as an opportunity to advance its own power in controlling the affairs of the world and undermine any attempt to place binding controls on international business activities.

According to Shell's Philip Watts, WSSD "is a vital opportunity for the international community to demonstrate it can take practical steps to ensure all benefit from sustainable development. Business needs to show it can be a partner in that journey." Watts told ICC members that the themes of their conference -- trade, technology and partnership -- are "an excellent basis" for conceptualizing that partnership.

As the key to sustainable development, the business lobby is heavily promoting "partnerships" between business and NGOs, the UN, local governments, trade unions, and communities. The "voluntary action" agenda is represented by the Business Action on Sustainable Development (BASD), a joint project of the ICC and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

Louise Fréchette, UN Deputy Secretary-General, told the ICC that the "doors to the United Nations are open as never before to the vast and dynamic constellation of non-state actors. The Secretary General has made it one of his main priorities to see that this trend continues. So let there be no mistake, the UN needs the world's business men and business women as creators of wealth, as promoters of trade, investment and stable markets, as innovators in the development of new technologies, in short, as full partners in our global mission of peace and development." Fréchette added that the new partnership marks "a new recognition by the UN and the private sector alike, not only that business can do a great deal for the United Nations, but that a strong United Nations is good for business."

A stronger embrace of business by the UN can scarcely be imagined. "It is quite natural for the United Nations and the private sector to join forces," Fréchette said. "I'm pleased to say that the partnership with the ICC has already yielded some very positive results. Together the ICC and the United Nations conference on trade and development have created guides designed to steer foreign investment to some of the world's poorest countries."

Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, former chair of Royal Dutch/Shell group and current chair of BASD, spoke at an ICC panel discussion titled "Sustainable solutions for business and the environment." He told ICC members that business participation was welcomed at preparatory meetings leading up to the Johannesburg summit. Meeting the goals set out at Rio is a "huge task and we're only just starting," he said. He was concerned, however, by the number of demands coming out of the "multi-stakeholder dialogues" leading up to the summit, which he characterized as "much less dialogues than a series of position statements or wish lists. This structure is not easy to handle."

Moody-Stuart was joined by Rio Tinto's Lord Holme of Cheltenham, who is also co-chair of BASD. Holme agreed that partnership initiatives are the best way to promote sustainability and took another dig at environmentalist demands for enforceable standards on international business conduct. Holme was the only panelist to mention Friends of the Earth by name and alluded to a proposal that FOE is spearheading for international negotiations to create enforceable standards. Holme characterized FOE's position as naive, arguing that global standards would fail to make distinctions across sectors or between global regions, imposing a "one-size-fits-all" straitjacket on corporate behavior.

Don't Worry, Be Happy

Skeptical Environmentalist author Bjorn Lomborg also participated in the panel with Moody-Stuart and Holme and was a clear audience favorite. He elicited giggles and applause during his presentation on the state of the environment. Lomborg's basic argument is that things are not so bad with the environment, and if anything, they are getting better. By recognizing this "fact," he argues, "better" decisions can be made about "sustainable" development.

"You should make sure we focus on the important issues," Lomborg said. "Those are poverty and starvation and, not in the first place, environment. That will come when people get sufficiently rich. Basically, what matters is that we make sure the poor countries get allowed to trade."

Lomborg admitted, however, that his recommendations were likely to elicit skepticism from the public. "Everyone is going to say, 'ah, of course, business.' And so there really is a selling problem, a PR problem," Lomborg said. "But I do also honestly believe that just only because people can't possibly level a suspicion at you, it shouldn't prevent you from advocating the right thing."

As public scrutiny of corporate activities continues to increase, international business will want more than ever to be perceived as doing the right thing. ICC and other business lobbies will do all they can to ensure their members and constituents are seen as not needing regulation and as capable of being good corporate citizens.

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