The Debate over Corporate Social Responsibility

By Steve May; George Cheney et al. | Go to book overview

23

Greening of Corporations?
Eco-talk and the Emerging Social Imaginary
of Sustainable Development

SHARON M. LIVESEY JULIE GRAHAM


CORPORATE ECO-TALK AND
THE PERFORMANCE OF
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT

A new form of corporate eco-communication emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s, distinct from the crisis communication arising out of environmental disasters such as the poisonous gas leak at Union Carbide's plant in Bhopal, India, or the nearly 11 million gallon oil spill of the Exxon Valdez in Alaska's pristine Prince William Sound. Now companies found themselves responding to controversies caused not by their wrongdoing or negligence but by society's changing expectations. Changing social values had made unacceptable the narrow economic calculus by which they had conventionally operated, forcing them into public debates with their critics where new values were articulated and performed.

The new corporate eco-talk involved businesses in adopting and adapting emerging concepts of sustainable development. A number of companies moved beyond debate to dialogue with a wide range of stakeholders, including social advocacy groups; in a few cases, they ventured further, entering into eco-collaborations with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) dedicated to protecting the natural environment and human rights. Such efforts could be taken simply as public relations maneuvers or cynical attempts by businesses to avoid regulation or deflect criticism without changing their practices in any substantial respects. We take a different view. Whatever the original instrumental intent, language and symbolic action may have constitutive effects beyond what any particular agents—corporate communication departments, CEOs, other corporate rhetors, or their critics—can control. Corporate eco-talk participates in (re)creating the firm and (re)constructing its relationship to nature, while opening up novel possibilities of understanding and action at the societal level. In the cases we document here, new forms of corporate behavior and relationships with internal and external stakeholders emerged. These were integral to and constitutive of what can be perceived as a society-wide shift toward corporate social responsibility, enacted through such practices as environmental and social reporting, stakeholder dialogue, and NGO–business partnerships.

In this chapter, we focus primarily on a rhetorical contest between the Royal Dutch/Shell Group and critics of its environmental and human rights record in Nigeria. Our analysis foregrounds the performative effects of discourse, as evidenced first in ruptures and shifts in social values and norms that threatened traditional modes of development and their ability to sustain Shell's social license to operate. We then demonstrate the performativity of Shell's own eco-talk, focusing on the new organizational practices that emerged out of its rhetorical engagements with its critics. We also discuss more briefly two cases involving other sec

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