The theme for this year’s Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) conference in San Francisco last week was “redefining leadership”. I have no qualm with that, for when I realized that Chevron was not only a major sponsor but a featured speaker on a panel about “community engagement,” I agreed. Indeed, that is a new definition of leadership – appallingly bad leadership.
Inviting the oil company that was found guilty of deliberately dumping 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into the pristine Ecuadorian Amazon – poisoning over 30,000 people who live there – to lead a session on community engagement is like asking the Taliban to chair a conference on women’s rights. Is this really the message that BSR wants to send to its members?
We are confronted by hypocrisy every day, and yet somehow there’s a fundamental disconnect here that defies explanation. The jury is no longer out. Chevron has lost an 18-year legal battle, been found guilty and fined $18 billion in a venue of its own choice. Because they refuse to accept responsibility and pay for a clean-up, Chevron is now the “poster-child” for corporate irresponsibility. Adding insult to injury (and these are not metaphorical injuries), Chevron filed a RICO suit against the plaintiffs earlier this year accusing them of extortion. That case was eventually laughed out of court, but Chevron’s strategy remains the same: delay, disrupt and deny. Is this a new definition of leadership? I’d call it the same tired tactics on which corporate criminals spend millions each year.
How does Chevron go from such infamy to sharing the stage with Aron Cramer, President and CEO of BSR (and on the 18th anniversary of the launch of the epic lawsuit against Chevron, no less)? During the panel, Chevron spokesperson Rhonda Zygocki, VP of Policy and Planning, actually said that there’s no longer a CSR Department at Chevron because corporate responsibility is integrated into every aspect of the company’s operations. Why would they need a department to evaluate how they treat communities and the environment, since everybody at Chevron so completely loves community and the environment? That would be silly. Mr. Cramer, who according to the BSR site is, “recognized globally as an authority on corporate responsibility by leaders in business and NGOs and by his peers in the field,” did not question this position. It certainly seems like a colossal step backward to us. On the other hand, eliminating the CSR department at Chevron may be the first honest thing they have done in a long while.
Zygocki went on to tell the room that “values-driven leadership is visible… values have to be overt.” This is from a woman who has sat, face to face with Cofán leader Emergildo Criollo, a man who lost two children to Chevron’s toxic mess in Ecuador and blamed another company for pollution she knows her company created. Chevron’s “values” have led them to try every dirty trick in the book to avoid responsibility, and now, after years of legal battles, when the decision has finally been made, they vow never to pay to clean up the mess they made, pledging instead to “fight it out until hell freezes over, and then fight it out on the ice.” How dare they speak of values?
One value that Chevron does understand, however, is the value of an ad campaign. The recent “We Agree” PR blitz is actually an example of hollow leadership. Like the concept of corporate social responsibility, Chevron can vaguely “agree” that “oil companies should care” without ever actually doing anything to back that up. Greenwashing like this deserves its own panel at a BSR conference, but certainly not as an example of leadership. In fact, Mr. Cramer should dedicate an entire day at next year’s conference to examining the brutal reality of Chevron’s “community engagement.” Amazon Watch, and many other organizations working with communities in Angola, Ecuador, Nigeria, Indonesia, the tar sands of Canada, Alaska, Texas, and even Richmond, California would be eager to contribute. Instead, by touting Chevron as a responsible business leader, BSR’s commitment to its own mission must be questioned.
Hypothetically, what would it mean if Chevron accepted its responsibility for the worst oil-related disaster on Earth? If they paid for a full-scale clean-up and helped to heal the sick and dying communities in Ecuador? That type of leadership would not only be responsible but revolutionary. It would send shock waves through every major industry and cement Chevron in place as a true leader in corporate social responsibility. How to make this thought experiment become a reality is what BSR should be examining – the “Business of a Better World.”
A true advocate for corporate social responsibility would join the growing wave of voices telling Chevron that enough is enough. That there will be no bold “new leadership” if corporations can’t accept their role in egregious violations such as the case in Ecuador. Chevron is a criminal – an unrepentant recidivist – not a leader.