“Evil” in Corporate America

Dear Friends: I am taking summer-term classes and, once again, am behind on everything! So I’m, once again, taking the easy way out and posting an excerpt from a paper I wrote during winter term.

I have been a viewer of public television my entire life: I was raised on Sesame Street’s first broadcasts and have watched through the decades. I remember about ten or fifteen years ago hearing about some nefarious practice of the company Archer Daniels Midland, or ADM. That evil company!

“Wait a minute,” I thought. “The ADM that advertises on PBS?”

This was one of my first awakenings to the problematic nature of corporate sponsorship. How could PBS accept money from ADM and—more importantly—run “underwriting announcements” that tout ADM’s products and practices? Doesn’t PBS’s running that announcement (whether it should be called a commercial is the subject of another essay) imply their support of ADM? I suddenly found my lifelong trust in PBS disintegrating a bit.

Since then, I’ve witnessed many instances of corporate trespasses against humanity, animal rights, and ecology that are tempered by impressive public relations efforts to the contrary. Monsanto’s “Golden Rice” campaign. Ethanol. “Pork: The Other White Meat.”

My personal hesitation about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) has less to do about their potential health hazards and more to do with the business practices of the corporations that are developing them. If those companies want to develop GMO seeds, for example, and then let farmers buy them and then save them, resell them, or whatever they want; fine. But the idea of one, or even a handful of corporations, owning the world’s supply of seeds—the building block of life itself—well, that seems problematic. And it seems to be exactly what Monsanto and its ilk are up to. They have not shown themselves worthy of trust by mercilessly intimidating and chasing down small farmers who try to save their seed, and releasing teams of lawyers to sue them over patent infractions.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It all comes down to how one looks at the purpose of commerce. Do businesses exist to generate profit for an individual or group? Or do they exist to provide a means for people—all people—to live comfortably? My answer would be that the current American mindset is the former, and we need to move toward making it the latter.

However, I agree with Will Allen, executive director of Growing Power, that it’s in no one’s best interest to exclude America’s largest corporations from the conversation of creating an equitable food system. While it may seem counterintuitive to work with entities that ultimately have created the inequitable system we have, acting as though they are The Enemy simply guarantees the failure of grassroots equity efforts. It’s not a matter of righteousness, it’s a matter of scale.

Companies like ADM and Wal-Mart aren’t evil; they are simply wildly successful at the game of capitalism. So long as our society holds up capitalism as its model of success, there are going to continue to be ADMs and Wal-Marts. Refusing to work with such companies, including to refuse a monetary donation if offered one, will not eliminate them. It will simply starve an already cash-strapped effort.

This isn’t to say that any entity should accept money from a corporation like Wal-Mart that has any kind of strings attached. As Andrew Fisher pointed out during the FSS560 webinar on January 6, 2014, his organization refused a donation from Chipotle that required implicit endorsement on their part. But once his organization had refused it, Chipotle came back with an unrestricted donation, which they accepted. So long as a donation is a donation, and not a bribe or exchange for services (which keeps PBS on the hook as far as I’m concerned), and as long as the beneficiary doesn’t change its mission or operations in order to ameliorate the donor or attempt to attract other similar donations, I feel such donations should be welcomed as a step toward dialogue with members of the system that needs to be changed in order to achieve food justice.

Compromise is the key. There is no one effort that is going to change things overnight, and no one route. And, while we’re at it, no one vision of success. I’m generally not a process-oriented person, but I recognize that, in this case, process is the goal.

I appreciated Robert Egger’s encouragement of business leaders to embrace the “charity begins at home” notion by paying their employees living wages—very perceptive considering the efforts in 2013 by low-wage workers to demonstrate and make their plight known. Corporations have figured out how to game the system by paying their employees poverty wages, knowing they can make up the difference using taxpayer dollars via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, housing subsidies, Women Infants and Children, and other federal entitlement programs. This, in my view, is cheating. Profit comes after paying overhead, and dodging overhead is bad business.

But, again, the corporate world considers this creative and successful accounting maneuvers. They are right. Ethically their actions are wrong; financially they are brilliant. Again, they’re not “evil,” just successful capitalists.

In order to change the actions of corporate America, we have to change the discourse of success in corporate America. The term “good corporate citizen” exists; we just have to make it mean something, and make consumers value that so they can pressure corporations to value that. It’s not profit that is the Enemy of the People; it’s the daisies that get trampled on the side of the road to profit.

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