A grey sky with silhouetted cylinder buildings emitting huge puffs of smoke and pollution into the air

Anthropology: Corporate Harm, Strategic Responsibility, and the Environment

Corporate harm is a pervasive and inescapable consequence of modern life. Multinational corporations have increasing freedoms to operate across borders with limited jurisdictional constraints. As such, they have control over vast amounts of wealth and influence. This article explores how corporations evade social responsibility for their environmental destructiveness. In addition, it highlights the importance of an anthropological approach in addressing such harm.

Today, anthropologists tend to pay more attention to the state and governmentality than to how corporations shape the world congruent with their pursuit for profit and growth. As a result, ethnography considers corporations as anti-political machines that are subdivisions of governments. This approach ignores the elusive political processes through which large companies promote their own interests, often at the expense of the environments in which they dwell. An intense academic focus on government structures downplays the role that some corporations play in environmental hazards, health risks and inequality.

A grey sky with silhouetted cylinder buildings emitting huge puffs of smoke and pollution into the air
Image Source: Kibae Park / Getty Images

What is a harm industry?

Harm industries are found in many large capitalist enterprises. They are founded on company practices that are harmful to the environment and intertwined with our money-making economy. Because of their intimate relationship with our functioning economy, they are rarely perceived as crimes and can easily evade loose regulations – this is the basis of corporate harm.

A sunset orange sky foregrounded by a row of metal satellite-looking structures
Image Source: oilandgasiq.com

Five cases of corporate harm that have impacted people and the environment

This article considers five harm industry examples that have negatively impacted the environment or those living within it. These include the mining industry; the Bhopal disaster; the tobacco industry; Chevron and ‘human energy’, and the Chemical Manufacturers’ association’s ‘essential2life’ program.

Corporate harm in the mining industry

Mining is an abundantly clear example of a harm industry. It benefits the economy by creating wealth and employment, and supports the widespread use and need for metals. Simultaneously, however, the mining industry causes a destructive transformation of the environment and exposes workers and nearby inhabitants to toxic threats from lead, asbestos and uranium. The World Bank continues to fund innovative mining projects, even though negative harms have been well-established. Since mining is a key driver in promoting foreign direct investment, these harms are rarely given priority in policy decisions.

A deep ashy mining pit with a small mining cart positioned at the top edge
Image Source: Wikipedia

The rhetoric of ‘sustainable mining’

There is a justification that the mining industry promotes sustainable development. The language of sustainable mining diminishes and glosses over the industry’s environmental impacts. As a result, many large companies are able to avoid governmental regulations.

The OK Tedi Mine

The OK Tedi Mine is an open-pit copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea located near the OK Tedi river.

Between 1984 and 2013, two billion tonnes of untreated mining waste was released into the river. The OK Tedi environmental disaster disrupted the lives of 50,000 people and has been dubbed one of the worst environmental disasters caused by humans.

The company denied that their mining project would have significant impacts so they could minimise their expenditure on environmental controls. Despite the environmental damage, the company’s Department of Environment and Public Relations distributed a colourful poster depicting a blue sky over mountains and green grass, a red flower, and an orange butterfly. In this way, the company diverted attention away from the real harm – a clear instance of corporate denial and avoidance of social responsibility. Further mitigating the harms from public view, The Western Mining and Placer Dome responded to the general mining industry by publishing information that redefined mining as a form of ‘sustainable development.’ Avoiding mention of the ongoing environmental impacts of mining wastage, the OK Tedi Mine was praised for its business and revenue potential.

A deforested and grey mining pit with smoke entering near the top left shows the devastating effects of corporate harm
Image Source: Wikipedia

See more corporate harm in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s coltan mines.

Corporate harm in the Bhopal disaster

On December 3rd 1984, part of the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) chemical plant exploded in Bhopal, India. Days after the gas leak, up to 10,000 people died and thousands more were poisoned. The UCC plant was manufactured and run by Union Carbide India Ltd (UCIL), an Indian company in which Union Carbide (an American company) had a majority shareholding.

A man stands next to an old gas tank surrounded by pipes
Image Source: Dnaindia.com

In June 2010, seven executives of UCIL were found guilty of criminal negligence. Interestingly, however, all of those convicted individuals were Indian; no Americans were convicted despite holding a large portion of the company. This highlights the blatant inequalities in criminal justice processes that operate on power dynamics. The relatively poorer Indian people experienced the criminal justice system more harshly than the American businessmen involved.

Although it has been almost 40 years since the Bhopal disaster, its effects linger in the Indian community. The unkillable event serves as a grim reminder of the danger of toxic chemicals coupled with human error. As we continue to invest in toxic chemical plants for economic gain, these tragedies are unquestionably likely to plague our futures.

A sign on the side of a grassy road reads 'Dow Chemical no justice in Bhopal no business in India' in bright yellow capital letters
Image Source: Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra / Flickr

Avoiding blame in the Bhopal disaster

Kim Fortun’s work on Union Carbide and the Bhopal disaster exemplifies how corporations strategically distance themselves from industrial disasters.

According to Fortun, the legal case only made room for facts and figures. People were distanced from the destructive harms and the emotional impacts of these harms. The case was also fuelled by a ‘beyond blame’ logic. In other words, this reasoning argues that environmental disasters are a shared responsibility generated by a string of complex social processes that preclude the designation of a single culprit. Why, then, were the perpetrators found to be mostly the company’s Indian branch and not the American branch?

Lawyers representing the American side argued that there were no laws that applied to the case because of the globalised nature of the state-corporate nexus. As a result, the large company took advantage of the space in-between laws where jurisdiction becomes ambiguous. Crimes of the powerful, in this case, are situated beyond the reach of the law.

With the gas leak’s harm still manifesting in Bhopal today, the most vulnerable members of society continue to suffer the consequences of corporation harm. The crime was a result of cost-cutting measures and unenforced health and safety regulations. Therefore, it was preventable ­­– but who is held responsible?

Black and white image of a woman holding a small deformed child in a Bhopal alleyway
Image Source: thelogicalindian.com

Corporate harm in the tobacco industry

The tobacco industry frequently frames smoking as a personal issue rather than the responsibility of cigarette companies. The personal responsibility framework used within contemporary political discourse is strategically used to obstruct government action on public health issues. Shockingly, up until around the 1990s, the tobacco industry denied any direct causal link between cigarette smoking and disease.

An employee checks finished John Player Special (JPS) cigarettes, manufactured by Imperial Tobacco Group Plc, at the company's factory in Nottingham, U.K., on Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. Imperial Tobacco Group Plc is Europe's second-biggest tobacco company and generates about 40 percent of its profit from the region.
Image Source: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Studies have shown that tobacco companies frequently employ a ‘freedom of choice’ rhetoric that distances them from the harmful effects of smoking. These language techniques deflect attention away from corporate responsibility, placing blame on individuals. In doing so, tobacco companies resisted erosion of profitability and maintained their relatively unregulated operations.

The tobacco industry’s personal responsibility rhetoric peaked in the 1980s during a swell of consumer litigation. The primarily legal argument for tobacco defendants was that smoking consequences were the responsibility of the consumer who voluntarily consumed them. As a result, tobacco corporations relocate the blame for harm and, ultimately, are rarely framed as key players in corporate harm instances.

A cigarette company advertisement featuring a woman dressed in blue sitting comfortably with her cigarette and the the text 'I thought about all I'd read and said to myself, either quit or smoke True...I smoke True'. The poster emphasises the subtle ways corporate harm can manifest in consumer products
A 1975 advertisement emphasising the choice of P. Lorillard True cigarettes
Image Source: tobacco.stanford.edu

Corporate harm at Chevron and its ‘human energy’ campaign

Chevron Corporation is an American multinational energy corporation. The company uses a marketing tactic known as ‘greenwashing’ to showcase a humanistic commitment to the environment whilst concealing the corporation’s unsightlier policies and practices.

By framing the corporation as a ‘clean’ and ‘human’ organisation, the ‘human energy’ campaign conceals the company’s primary profit-seeking goals. In doing so, environmental corporate harms are hidden behind the mask of ‘a brighter future’.

Chevron human energy company logo in blue
Image Source: chevron.com

Corporate harm at the Chemical Manufacturers’ Association and its ‘Essential2life’ program

The essential2life program is a communication effort to show ‘how connected we all are and how central chemistry is to the health and growth of our nation’.

Essential2life transforms the representational strategy of the chemical industry. Instead of emphasizing stewardship (taking care of something), it promotes the essentialness of chemistry and the chemical industry. The program separates the risk of industrial chemicals from their essentialness and promise, focussing purely on the latter. In doing so, the program ignores the health and environmental risks of industrial chemicals and emphatically overlooks the human and environmental burdens that plague modern society. One strategy used by the program is the saturation of advertising space with images of wildlife and children. These images make the program’s functioning difficult to dispute.

A screenshot of the essential2life website page featuring an image of a child in sport and a chunk of text below it
Image Source: essential2life Kim Fortun

Essential2life is yet another example of the strategic use of corporate language as it relates to environmental and human harm. Anthropologists have been increasingly engaged with the linguistic use of ‘corporate oxymorons’ that shift public perceptions of corporate harm. Undoubtedly, It is concerning to have corporate actors leading the conversation about research on toxins and the environment. Large corporations hold significant power in constructing what messages they put out to the public, and thus how we perceive them. Therefore, we need to be more critical and aware of the modern corporate language and power game.

How corporations avoid social responsibility

There are three phases of corporate response to environmental harm. These are:

  1. Denial of harm and the proliferation of doubt
  2. Acknowledgement that a problem exists and symbolic gestures
  3. Crisis management

Denial of harm and the proliferation of doubt

The first step in avoiding responsibility for corporate harm is denial. For example, the tobacco industry’s refusal to recognise a link between smoking and cancer. This promotion of doubt influences the public’s perception of risk and creates a widespread feeling called resignation – the perceived inability to change the future. Ultimately, this submissive acceptance nurtures an unrestricted environment for corporations to continue their harmful practices.

Acknowledgement that a problem exists and symbolic gestures

The second step in avoiding responsibility for corporate harm is the symbolic gestures that come after a company acknowledges the existence of a problem. These symbolic gestures falsely convince consumers that action is being taken; they provide a surface-level mask that permits further inaction.

For example, in the 1950s, tobacco companies introduced filtration technologies using misleading product descriptors such as ‘light’ and ‘low tar’ to curb consumer anxieties and promote industry legitimacy. Despite this image of company innovation and consumer recognition, cigarettes were not any safer than before.

A R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company poster showing a cartoon doctor holding a pack of cigarettes and smiling
R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company / Image Source: theatlantic.com


Cigarette advertisement featuring the 'lowest tar cigarette ever'
Image Source: vintage-adventures.com

The goal of this step is to avoid paying the full costs of solving corporate harm whilst continuing to promote their status. For anthropologists, this strategic corporate response alerts a need to critique and evaluate industry messages. Publicly available information released by corporations is most certainly not the whole story. Rather, upon its dissection, we see it is a layered portrait of corporate strategies founded on power, ideological conflict and profit-based motives.

The dome of a building against a blue sky with cartoon hands holding multinational corporation logos on strings in front of it
Image Source: zmescience.com

Corporate harm and crisis management

The final step in avoiding responsibility for corporate harm is crisis management. This comes as a final attempt to escape bankruptcy and industry collapse. It forces corporations to actively engage with public criticism and policy relating to industry regulation.

There are different ways corporations can employ crisis management. One way is through the appropriation of oppositional discourse. For instance, as aforementioned, the mining industry strategically combated arguments about its environmental destructiveness by employing a ‘sustainable development’ discourse that appeals to workers and a rich ecological future.

A digitalised earth with 'futuresmart mining' written in white in front of it
Image Source: angloamerican.com

Another way corporations engage in crisis management is by forming partnerships. For example, by inviting environmental activists to work as public relations officers, corporations can strategically promote an ideology of harmony. As a result, there is a unified appeal to values of cooperation and accountability, and critics are portrayed as ineffective troublemakers.

Why is it important to take an anthropological approach to corporate harm?

Despite some notable ethnographic investigations into the corporate arena, most research on the subject remains small. Anthropologists are yet to see a line of scholarship that holds the same significance as literature devoted to studies on governance and the nation-state.

Emerging with modernity’s rapidity, declining sovereignty of nation-states is associated with the corporations’ swelling sovereign power. Certainly, corporations are the dominant institution of our time. They shape our everyday human experience in both disastrous and ambivalent ways.

A cartoon artwork featuring an orange landscape with cardboard box characters, overflowing coins, and the colourful logos of big corporations like Apple, Twitter, Whatsapp and Facebook 'like' symbols. The elements come together to create a visual chaos that is emblematic of corporate harm
Image Source: Artwork by Gwendal Le Bec via slate.com

Many of the vast and irreparable harms that continue to permeate vulnerable communities are primarily rooted in corporate bodies. Moreover, corporate denial and blame avoidance remain central issues in the quest for justice and social repair. It makes sense, then, that we turn to these organisations as sources of structural harm. An anthropological approach allows us to analyse the corporation’s symbolic power and how this influences human and environmental life.

A vigorous anthropology of corporate forms is fundamental if anthropology is to remain a relevant body that offers a unique framework for understanding and changing the world.

For a deeper look into environmental disasters around the world, check out this article.

Leave a Reply