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Tesco and the myth of corporate social responsibility

Tesco’s latest charity drive aroused controversy on social media this week after giving customers small blue tokens for each purchase that they could then place in one of three clear boxes for a charity . Every six weeks the Tesco branch will divide €1,000 between the three charities according to how many blue tokens they have in their pot. The idea is nice; you can buy over-packaged food and some local group will benefit from your hardening arteries. Each branch of Tesco was allowed to pick the charities, and that women’s refuges received less money than animal sanctuaries as a result of consumer’s choices caused a bit of a stir.

It won’t come as a shock to anyone who has had even the slightest interaction with liberal types, that it’s fairly common that people give charitable donations to animals before people in need. It’s also fairly common for people to look at this type of scenario and say “Well at least there was a women’s refuge you could donate to” in the range of the deserving poor according to Tesco – and this post does not aim to condemn the people who hold that view. In a climate where the state is engaged in a mission to complete the wholesale abandonment of service provision to people in need, organisations will step in. The organisations who have stepped in to provide services were the state has failed, require funding, and it is very difficult for the people running them to refuse money where it is going spare. That’s not to say that NGOs and service providers should accept donations from any old capitalist multinational regardless of where it comes from or how it’s raised, merely to acknowledge that principles are all very well and good when you can afford to have them.

And while I’m deeply suspicious of people who campaign for the rescue of dogs in the streets before, say, looking for housing for homeless humans in the streets, there is a more important discussion to be had here, and that concerns the absolute myth of corporate social responsibility, and the belief in the idea that charity will solve the social ills of the world when in many cases the reality is that its continued existence doesn’t do anything but further exacerbate those ills. I hold my hands up and say I don’t have the answers to any of this (apart from smash capitalism and patriarchy obviously). Charitable endeavours much of the time are a sticking plaster for the injurious nature of capitalism. Yes, they hold people together, but dependence on state funding very often results in gagging them from articulating just how bad things really are.

Tesco may like to seem nice and cuddly because they are big outfit and they donate money to a women’s refuge, but we as a community need to acknowledge that the women’s refuge needs money because the state will not provide it in the first place. Putting aside for the moment another long but necessary discussion bemoaning the fact that we wouldn’t need women’s refuges if men would keep their fists to themselves, the state will not provide the funding needed, partially because corporations will not pay large sums in corporation tax which could be funnelled in to service provision. Many women are forced for to remain in situations of domestic violence simply because they cannot afford to leave. Poor women find it more difficult to escape domestic violence and I would be willing to put money on the fact that there have been people employed by Tesco sheltered in women’s refuges before – they only pay €9 per hour to their customer assistants, just above the legal minimum wage in the state. Perhaps if women were paid a little bit better, they would have more options other than underfunded domestic violence shelters when leaving abusive relationships.

Which children’s charity will criticise Tesco for making it cheaper to feed children rubbish high-sugar food when it could potentially one day be Tesco’s charity of the year? NGOs are regularly prevented from being overly critical of governments when they depend on state agencies and statutory bodies for funding to do their work. When state funding is becoming thinner and thinner on the ground, corporate social responsibility philanthropic programmes will inevitably make it more difficult for organisations to criticise the actions of businesses that make their existence necessary in the first place.

The Tesco website has a statement on corporate responsibility:

“As Ireland’s leading retailer, our stores serve a large number of communities throughout the country. Our interaction with these communities reminds us daily about our responsibilities as an employer, as a business and as a good neighbour…”

Of course, we know this is nonsense. Capitalist companies having corporate social responsibility because they care about the communities in which they are located, is a myth. As this Forbes piece shows, corporate social responsibility in the form of charitable donations is useful for businesses because it means more profits. Business energy efficiency = lower energy costs = increased profits. The caring business is a complete fallacy.

The Forbes article also describes how New Perimeter are a nonprofit law firm established by DLA Piper providing pro bono legal assistance in developing and post-conflict regions. What Forbes left out, is that DLA piper entered a partnership with Brazilian law firm Campos Mellos Advogados in 2010, who handled and encouraged Brazilian real estate deals for the building of infrastructure for the World Cup 2014. The same World Cup where the building of infrastructure necessary for it to take place left 250,000 people homeless.  DLA Piper and Campos Mellos Advogados have also sent lawyers to Israel to encourage and promote commercial ties with Israel. So DLA Piper staff donate their time to New Perimeter and get to feel warm and fuzzy on the inside while their paid employment is to perpetuate other people’s misery. Caring corporate social responsibility does not exist.

After protests during the past few weeks across Ireland calling for an end to the Israeli offensive in the Gaza strip, Tesco announced that it would no longer stock fruit that came from illegal Israeli settlements. However Tesco has failed to clarify how it is going to differentiate between food from illegal Israeli settlements, and food from outside of them, or whether their boycott will extend to food packaged in illegal settlements but not necessarily grown there. It is a far cry from the BDS campaign that calls for a boycott of all Israeli products until Israel upholds international law. Tesco has form when it comes to being sketchy as to where supplies come from, but it got the nice headlines about Israeli fruit and got to talk about their responsibilities as an employer and neighbour at a time when they knew it was politically popular to do so, while still actually stocking Israeli produce.

So Tesco in Cabra might donate €300 to a women’s refuge in a few weeks, but will probably continue to stock Israeli produce and profit from the violation of rights of people in Palestine, and the actual murder of Palestinian women in Gaza.

Businesses engage in PR exercises that present a facade of social responsibility when their actual business practices are wildly different to what they portray, but it makes liberals feel good about their engagement with capitalism. Buy more stuff. Put another blue token in the box. Save a puppy, and so on. When the motive of an action is profit, there can be no such thing as corporate responsibility, it merely serves to legitimise neo-liberal economics and exploitation, and a few bob to the local women’s refuge won’t change the fact that it capitalism contributes to the need for funding for refuges in the first place.


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11 responses »

  1. While I agree that Tesco- and a lot of other companies- have a lot to answer for as regards ‘corporate responsibility’ I am going to play devil’s advocate here and say unfortunately it’s not Tesco’s fault that people are in abusive relationships. Women and men in abusive relationships find that financial abuse is all too common. Even if Tesco paid €20 an hour (and they’re doing nothing illegal by paying €9) I’m sure those in abusive relationships probably would have to hand it over to their partner regardless- if they’re even ‘allowed’ to be employed in the first place. Blaming a business for that is a bit of a stretch- are they supposed to evaluate employees’ relationships before hiring them?

    I also don’t know what a supermarket is expected to do about the failure of government.

    Of course corporate responsibility is bull. Perhaps from time to time it’s genuine somewhere along the line- thinking back to the old-school philanthropists like George Cadbury or even Arthur Guinness- but of course companies wouldn’t do anything charitable if there wasn’t a benefit for them. But who cares really as long as deserving organisations are getting more money? Should Focus Ireland or the refuge in Cabra turn down the money from Tesco? We live in a capitalist society for better or worse and I can’t see it changing any time soon.

    I am not sure about the Tesco scheme- it seems the staff in the individual stores pick the charities. So the one in Fleet St in Temple Bar is donating to three homeless organisations and the one in Donnybrook is donating to the hospital and Donnybrook parish.

    Finally, I rather resent the remarks on animal charities. I donate to animal charities because I care about animals, which doesn’t mean I don’t care about humans (I have donated to RCC and others too). I have found that money seems to go into a black hole with larger charities and I have heard too many bad stories. With local animal shelters, you can see exactly where the money is going.

    Totally with you on Israeli produce though. However- like South African produce back in the day- there will need to be a public will to boycott these.

    Reply
    • Hi Roisin,

      At no point was I suggesting that Tesco was the root cause of domestic violence, but certainly patriarchy and capitalism play a role. You have missed the point.

      I’m not saying charities should turn down the money. I made that point pretty clearly. I understand the position they’re in completely. I’m making the point that business policies contribute to the need for these charities in the first place. I’m involved with two charities and if Tesco offered money to them, I’d tell them to take it. These organisations are providing services.

      Anyway, where you choose to donate or not donate is up totally up to yourself. My own choice would be to prioritise humans over dogs. Although your sweeping statement about seeing exactly where the money is going in local animal shelters is incorrect – they’re no more transparent or ethical than any other organisation simply because they house cats over people.

      Reply
      • Apologies if I misunderstood, however my point still stands that as I see it, it would make no difference if Tesco paid double what it pays now, there would still be abuse. Financial freedom is a huge thing, and those in abusive relationships find it taken away. While I understand a patriarchal society leads to men thinking women are chattels, and government policies that prioritise capital investment over the welfare of its citizens obviously lead to prime conditions for all sorts of social ills, there’s still the issue that: abuse occurred in society long before industrial capitalism, and I really don’t see what a supermarket can do about individuals who are so effed up that they will abuse their wife/husband/child etc.

        Of course the shelter in Cabra and all others should receive more funding from government and the priority should go to them, rather than the Tescos and Googles etc of the world.

        I’m finding myself in the rather odd position of defending a multi-national corporation, but I really feel that they can’t win. Corporate social responsibility is bull, but I feel that if they did nothing for the community (and let’s face it, for many years they did, and companies like Tesco devastated a lot of town centres in the UK) they’d get stick for doing nothing. Sure we’d all prefer to be doing our shopping at a charming local butchers and then getting our veg at a family greengrocers, but the reality is for a lot of communities in Dublin particular, Tesco and the like are the only option. They’re getting stick for actually doing something for a change.

        Finally, as I mentioned in my earlier comment, I do donate to human based charities-the RCC and Pieta House being two I always try to help when I can. I donate to these because I can see the results. I see the results with the animal charities I personally donate to (don’t start me on bloody PETA for example). One in Limerick I always give to helps rescue and rehab wild animals- I see the results every day on their Facebook page. Whereas with certain large charities, all I see are chuggers who get paid ten quid an hour to hassle people on Grafton Street.

        Reply
        • Your point does not stand as it was responding to something I didn’t say. Low pay is a reality for many women, that impacts on their ability to leave abusive situations. That’s a fact. I wasn’t suggesting that a supermarket could fix it, but I do think that people should be paid a living wage.

          It’s irrelevant that they’re “actually doing something for a change” – the point of the post was to outline how them “doing something” is a mask for their actual business practices.

          Regarding seeing “the results” of animal charities posting pictures on facebook, perhaps you’d have more faith in homeless assistance organisations if they posted pictures of smiling, happy, former homeless people giving a thumbs up to the camera in their new abodes? Y’know, in order to to show the results of what they’re doing.

        • Doesn’t seem to let me reply directly to you.

          Of course I agree that companies should pay a living wage. It is irrelevant to abusive relationships however. I am sure that you are aware that financial abuse is common in abusive relationships. IF a person in an abusive relationship is even allowed to be employed by their abusive partner, they will have often have to hand over their wages in their entirety- doesn’t matter if they get paid twenty euro an hr, especially when almost all companies pay their wages electronically, it’s far too easy for the abusive partner to have complete financial control.

          It’s a side issue in my opinion, to quote Safe Haven “Who will support her and the children? She may have no financial resources, access to resources in general, or any job skills. If she has children, it becomes more difficult to leave without having the ability to get affordable housing, transportation, childcare, etc. She may even fear that her house or car may be taken away.” How many of these women are actually employed? Domestic abuse occurs in all classes also, there are women in seemingly wealthy situations who must account for every cent to abusive husbands.

          This change in wage must happen at government level, again I wonder why you expect anything better from Tesco etc. Possibly what I find hard to believe is that you actually seem to expect anything better from corporations. Companies exist to make money. They are not going to care about Mary the check-out woman whose husband comes home angry.

          At the end of the day, they are doing some minor good and I don’t know why anyone would expect more from them. They don’t exist to do good, they exist to make money. I can’t see any ‘mask’ that has slipped, I don’t think anyone believed the mask in the first place.

          As regards wage increases, seeing as this is the government that introduced Jobbridge, I won’t hold my breath.

          You are completely twisting my words about charities also and making me look like some silly teenager. I did not mention homelessness- if you must know, the charities I have reservations about are the likes of Concern. A reduction on homelessness on the streets would be great to see, again something that needs improved government policy. I don’t expect to see homeless people on Facebook grinning out at their new apartment. But you cannot blame anybody for expecting to see some kind of positive outcome from any charity given recent events.

  2. I believe…

    – corporate responsibility has been substituted by a form of cheap cynical advertising for many large brands and industries
    – liberals are not a homogenous group of people and their interaction with capitalism is unavoidable, yet more complex than a simple equation of buying more stuff and being conveniently duped by these charitable tactics
    – the chief offender when it comes to the dismantling and erosion of critical services is the state.
    – I still haven’t worked out what a love of animals has to do with state failure to provide for the citizen and the tax-payer (especially those on €9 per hour), and enforcing corporate responsibility across all industries – retail, building development, etc. etc.

    Reply
    • I don’t disagree with any of those points.

      The mention of the animal shelter issue was because of people raising the fact that more money had gone to animals than people. It was relevant.

      Reply
  3. i was looking forward to the blog entry based on the title and the first paragraph but i found it too distracting. while i don’t argue with the points you are making i think it may have been clearer and possibly more powerful separated into different blog posts targetting the different issues you raise.

    Reply
  4. Just as a side note: when I discussed this article with my sister, she pointed out that it’s quite ludicrous when the very same people buying tons of meat produced via industrial livestock farming then go on to put their blue tokens into the box for an animal charity. (My sister is not a vegetarian but buys her meats from organic markets where their sources are traceable.)

    Reply
  5. I worked for Greenpeace for a while and we got to choose what campaigns we did. I chose a campaign with a purely human angle: how coal fuels the IT cloud despite being a dirty fuel which pollutes many residential areas in midwest america, causing unusually high levels of tumours etc. I was the only person who chose this, everyone else chose fucking polar bears and tigers. My manager also advised me that I chose a tough campaign. I get that it is really sick that we are destroying the habitats of innocent creatures, but this seems insane. I’m a vegetarian, I care about animal rights. I just think it seems illogical to care about humans less. (I’m not saying this is a conscious thought of everyone who thinks animal charities are cooler than human ones, and I’m not trying to be even semi-nihilistic about animal suffering.) I don’t know if capitalism feeds patriarchy. I think maybe capitalism feeds apathy towards other human beings. Animals are more like guiltless consumer items to us. I mean, we could just stop eejits breeding and abusing domestic animals by prosecuting them – just because we eat them, doesn’t mean this is crazy. And if we had a more morally responsible capital system, we wouldn’t have extinct or endangered species. The capital system does not have to be the enemy. It exists no matter what. We just only call it capitalism when it is existing badly, with reckless abandon and moral ineptitude.

    Reply

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