Eveline Lubbers on 14 Jul 2000 08:01:07 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] global businesses fighting back on the Internet

June 26, 2000

Six Degrees of Co-optation

As activists use the Internet to pressure global businesses, their adversaries
are fighting back  with openness.

By Steffan Heuer

Naomi Klein spends her days making giant corporations look bad, so she hardly
expected to get a fan letter from the people who spend their days making the
same companies look good.

A pair of brand managers for the British manufacturing giant Unilever,
nonetheless, found Klein's anticorporate bestseller, No Logo, fascinating, and
they wondered if she would join them at a luncheon to discuss how the company
might improve its image. It's important, they wrote, to hear and understand
different perspectives. "Is this your worst nightmare e-mail come true?" they

In a way, it is. The 29-year-old Canadian activist has spent the past five years
researching a book that argues that brand-obsessed companies like Nike, Shell
and Unilever are increasingly vulnerable to a new breed of activist:
Internet-savvy hackers and journalists who use the Web's ubiquity and speed to
hit the companies where it hurts the most: their image. Real-time distribution
of data about pollution, widely distributed photos of sweatshops, rapidly
organized protests  all were made possible for activists by the advent of the

But now, even as activists turn the marketing guns against the big corporations,
the corporations are in turn co-opting the activist's information and turning it
into yet another branding play. Klein declined to help Unilever ("I don't feel
like I have anything to say to individual companies") but the company is
nonetheless watching  and learning fast.

It's a sometimes edgy dance between activists and their corporate nemeses.
Activists mount sophisticated campaigns against corporate exploitation,
commercialization, pollution and other assorted sins. Meanwhile, managers in
dire need of consumer feedback click through to see where their businesses are
most exposed and what they can do on their Web sites to counteract it.

This dance is becoming increasingly cooperative as companies around the world
discover that it pays to display a social conscience and brag about it in real
time. David Wheeler, who helped pioneer such efforts as the director of
environmental and social policy at The Body Shop International (BOS) and now
teaches at Toronto's York University, says transparency and accountability add
value to a company by helping build trust and loyalty, not only with customers,
but also with employees, suppliers and the public at large.

The Internet, he says, has accelerated this process by letting more and more
companies engage the public through what he calls "cybernetic sustainability
reporting"  Web-based reports that are up-to-the-minute and interactive. Shell,
for example, after being stung by controversies surrounding the Brent Spa
platform in the North Sea and its investments in Nigeria, now discusses "issues
and dilemmas" on its site and provides forums for feedback. The forums are
somewhat sparsely populated, though, and comments range from the heartfelt "This
company continues to persecute the people of Nigeria. Why?" to the more basic "I
want you greedy bastards to do something about the high GAS prices."

Surveys show, nonetheless, that more companies are attempting to open up, no
matter how awkwardly. The British outfit SustainAbility last year surveyed 150
corporate Web sites on behalf of the United Nations and found that more than
half included some kind of environmental communication, though less than 10
percent discussed social issues online. "Our hunch is this will grow
significantly," the authors concluded.

Not surprisingly, there are geographical differences. U.S. pharmaceutical
behemoth Monsanto (MTC) , freshly merged with Pharmacia & Upjohn (PNU) into
Pharmacia, praises its achievements in the area of "food, health, hope" on its
domestic site without delving right away into controversies over genetically
engineered food. Its British site starts with the statement: "Food biotechnology
is a matter of opinions. Monsanto believes you should hear them all" and goes on
to include links to critics such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

American companies are dragging their heels because of liability issues their
European counterparts don't face, says Wheeler. "They will switch on to this as
soon as they see it as a source of value. Then the floodgates will open."

The wave of the future, Wheeler predicts, will be one-to-one corporate
communications. Information will be tailored and streamed to specific
stakeholder groups, such as current employees, job seekers, consumers or
nonprofits. Why should a dot-com without any stake in East Asian mining or
"Frankenfood" care about all this? Because the new economy transcends the focus
on products and profits, says brand-basher Klein. "Dot-coms are pure brand,
their IPOs the ultimate victory in branding. If you're pop culture and built on
image alone, it's easier to be attacked." No wonder these companies are rushing
to tether themselves to the earth.

Positive values can be a distinguishing mark in cyberspace. Just ask David B.
Wheeler (no relation to Toronto's David Wheeler), CEO of Chicago startup
Myvalues.com. This fall he plans to launch a Web-based international
clearinghouse for companies, consumers and governments committed to ethical
business practices.

While value-based advertising is common offline, it hasn't taken hold in
cyberspace, where steep discounting is the primary sales pitch. Wheeler aims to
change that. "On the Net right now," Wheeler says, "consumers are given only one
choice: price. We believe they are more sophisticated and want to make choices
on things a lot deeper than price."

His plan is to build communities based on certified companies. Member firms will
be screened for a seal of approval and ranked against their competitors. If a VP
of purchasing cares about the rain forest and workers' rights, he'll be able to
find suppliers that do, too  right from his browser.

"It's not a protest site for beating up companies," Wheeler explains. "It's a
carrot, not a stick."

A bottom line based on such intangibles will most likely require a new breed of
manager. And that's exactly what's being hatched at business schools around the
country. When students at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business organized a
business-plan competition for socially conscious enterprises this spring, 66
entrants submitted proposals  nearly half of them Net-related.

"It indicates a trend," says Sara Olsen, one of the co-organizers.
"Sustainability relates strongly to the Internet, how we think and learn about
the externalities of capitalism. Businesses can be more profitable by being
green. It will be perfectly normal in a few years."

Several of the plans have already secured funding.

Judith Samuelson from the Aspen Institute in New York has been tracking whether
and how hundreds of MBA programs teach transparency and corporate responsibility
in the Internet age. She sees some encouraging signs, though acceptance of the
concept is still marginal. She agrees, however, that the Internet has been
critical in forcing enterprises to change their behavior. "Companies now
experience economic and reputational effects [of protests and boycotts]
literally overnight."

That's fine by Klein. As far as she's concerned, companies could stand to do a
lot more than open a dialogue with her. "The Internet has changed a lot for
activists and brought a lot of skeletons out of the closet," she says. "We're
able to embarrass companies now, but it's not a truth serum."

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