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Death of a green salesman?
BP and Wal-mart have moved to the opposite ends of the corporate citizenship spectrum. Wal-Mart has attracted NGOs into its orbit, as exemplified by the NGO Environmental Defense relocating its project manager to Bentonville, Arkansas, home of the giant retailer's headquarters. The environmental group has set up shop in the company's 'back yard' to work on green initiatives.18 Wal-Mart also hired former critic and Sierra Club president Adam Werbach to teach company floor employees how to consume less in their everyday lives, eat healthy food, and buy compact fluorescent light bulbs. Indeed, the so-called 'greening' of Wal-Mart has so profoundly changed the company's reputation that a prominent activist NGO decided not to campaign against Wal-Mart because they no longer make an attractive target.19
Meanwhile, BP, a heretofore CSR leader, has drawn the scorn of public opinion over a widespread series of awful gaffes. Its record includes the following:
September 2005 The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined BP Products North America more than $21 million following an explosion at its Texas City plant that claimed the lives of 15 workers and injured more than 170 others.20
September 2006 BP executives get excoriated by elected officials and apologise during an appearance before a Congressional Committee hearing under oath, with one taking the 5th Amendment against self-incrimination.25
How much rope does a company with a historically acclaimed record on corporate responsibility receive when they make mistakes? Specifically, how much leeway does BP get for its atrocious recent record because of its groundbreaking role as the first oil company to publicly acknowledge the existence of global warming and the role of fossil fuels as a cause?
BP has come a long way from the days in the run-up to the 1997 Kyoto Climate Change Conference. This was the first multi-stakeholder event organised by the UN Association of USA NGO programme, together with business, the Clinton-Gore administration, and the United Nations. The US had not taken a leadership role at that point, but BP was out in front, having publicly abandoned the Global Climate Coalition, a group of influential oil companies campaigning against the validity of climate change. During the question-and-answer session that followed the presentations a radical-left NGO representative commented, 'I never thought I would say this, but BP's position is more progressive than the US government's.' How BP will regain that faith over time will make it a test case of how companies who started well, but faltered, can finish the race victoriously.
18 'Green group moving into Wal-Mart's backyard', 12 July 2006; msnbc.msn.com/id/13828326/ from/ET.
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