Corporates Coy of Environmental Impact Disclosure

Nonprofits and journalists struggle to get firms to face their pollution trails

Story by Nantiya Tangwisutijit

How deep has green thinking penetrated the business community? Few are in a better position to assess this than Joydeep Gupta, associate editor at Indo-Asian News Service, who began his reporting career investigating one of the world's worst industrial tragedies: India's Bhopal disaster which claimed 20,000 lives in 1984.

While in Singapore last week to cover the B4E (Business for the Environment) Global Summit, Gupta thought twice before sitting down at a luncheon hosted by Dow Chemical, the American multinational company that became the world's second largest chemical manufacturer after its 1999 acquisition of Union Carbide, the company responsible for the Bhopal catastrophe.

Dow is also known for developing napalm and Agent Orange that caused massive casualties, birth defects and vast soil and water contamination during the Vietnam War.

At the Singapore summit "Business and Markets in a Climate of Change" Dow, and about two dozen global corporations talked about how they have succeeded in reducing their carbon footprint.

Environmental journalist Joydeep Gupta still awaits answers from polluting corporates

"It doesn't matter what they present in their glossy brochures, it's what they do inside when nobody is looking that determines if they've changed," Gupta said. "When it comes to environmental externalities, companies will see if it's cheaper for them to obey the law or bribe the inspector. That hasn't changed much."

The gathering of 500 business leaders was the latest of many forumsbeing held around the world for companies to showcase their greening efforts.

"Some see new business opportunities, others see their long term interest threatened by climate change. They are all doing something today," Achim Steiner said. He is executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, which helped organise the summit. "Have they done enough and progressed fast enough? Absolutely not. But they've come a long way from where they were a decade ago."

Nonprofits in attendance shared Gupta's view that corporate greening has more to do with improving balance sheets than the condition of theenvironment. Uchita de Zoysa, director of the Sri Lanka Centre for Environment could not get business leaders to respond when asked how they will address the pressing need for the developed world in particular to reduce consumption to cut carbon emissions. "Are companies ready to handle the consequences if consumers embrace that notion?" Zoysa asked. 

To   Gupta, few companies can even contemplate such changes, much less navigate through them. Many remain far too secretive in an effort to preserve their public image in the short term, rather than being open with consumers about the changes necessary for long-term sustainability.

Over the past twodecades, Gupta, an environmental economist by training, has been frustrated by the industry's ongoing resistance to release crucial public health information. His current focus is Dow's recent promotions in India for Styrofoam building insulation.

Sources have informed Gupta that the blowing agent for the foam might present environmental hazards. Moreover, some of these agents are responsible for a substantial amount of CO2 emissions according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

While in India, Dow vice president Neil Hawkins provided Gupta with some contacts, but none of them responded to his inquiries. He again raised the matter with Hawkins while the two were in Singapore.

"I know I won't hear anything from them," Gupta said. "They like to tell you PR stuff that means nothing. But they have a hard time telling the truth when it comes to their own pollution externalities … half truths are the best you can get."

Meanwhile, Dow's toxicologist Martina Bianchini said some chemicals were designed to be toxic and not bio-degradable in order to perform their intended functions.

Journalists from across Asia and Australia who also attended the B4E Singapore summit echoed Gupta's concerns. In a media workshop prior to the summit, China Daily's Li Jing discussed how industry data seldom matches government environmental reports.

Mostafa Majumder joins other journalists in seeking corporate ethics and transparency

Mostafa Kamal Majumder, editor of the New Nation in Bangladesh described how journalists are routinely bribed by

businesses to ensure coverage does not deviate from their PR campaigns. 

"Not every company is comfortable with transparency, they still have a long way to go," Claude Fussler, a former Dow executive, said. Fussler is now programme director of the United Nations' Caring for Climate initiative, which lists 230 companies including Dow as signatories. "I repeatedly told them, even when I was at Dow, that things come out anyway. In today's world, cover-ups won't work. It's more dangerous if the story comes out from others."

Article republished from The Nation. Photos by Mallika Naguran.