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It's time to act against corporate irresponsibility

The powerful multinationals of social media are still trying to lowball their impact, just as many of their counterparts in fast fashion and other consumer industries do. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has heard straight from the horses’ mouths that there is a limit to the responsibility global companies will take for the impact they have, even for practices that do not particularly affect their bottom lines.

Her convening of a top-level turnout of the tech giants in the US last week was marred by Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg’s subtle but unmistakable refusal to apologise for her platform’s dissemination of the Christchurch massacre footage. Sandberg was “regretful” but, perhaps conditioned by her country’s propensity for liability litigation, shied away from accepting culpability.

The powerful multinationals of social media are still trying to lowball the issues, just as many of their counterparts in fast fashion and other consumer industries do. Having found success and sometimes staggering profits in their business models, the corporations unsurprisingly demur at changes that might impinge on their alpha positions. They may make their shopping bags from recycled paper, but that can be the extent of their nod to environmental awareness.

It is time for action against errant and irresponsible corporates to be stepped up several gears and across more fronts. Collective action through the OECD is beginning to bring them to heel on tax avoidance. But the damage many do to the environment through mass production of needlessly short-lived items, and to social well-being through their agnosticism about vile content on the internet, is much greater than that caused by their depriving individual states of needed revenues.

Ardern has rightly vowed to stick to the hate-speech issue alone, which needs careful steering to avoid it curtailing free speech. But other leaders are coming forward with regulatory measures that would be exponentially stronger if approached multilaterally.

France has just announced it will prosecute companies that dump unsold goods and may fine them up to $780 per item. This follows growing public horror at more than $1.1 billion of unsold non-food goods being thrown away or destroyed in the past year.

The UK is considering a dumping ban as well as a levy on new clothing to fund mandatory recycling. It is also looking at ways to make social-media chiefs legally liable for harm caused by the likes of pro-suicide and pro-anorexia postings. China is capping petrol car imports and forcing its car makers to favour green technology. But as has been found with tax avoidance, it is possible to compel changes in behaviour only when many countries act together – to the point where the companies’ sales and/or market access are affected.

Ideally, enlightened consumers could do the job themselves. But many cellphones, tablets and computers are liable to start slowing and failing after a few years. And too much whiteware is so expensive to fix that it is cheaper to replace it.

Fashion is deemed dated with each passing season. Tech companies compel upgrades by making software incompatible with hardware. Parts are permanently sealed to prevent repair and vital components are discontinued.

Convenience and the apparent affordability of what’s on offer trump ethical considerations. Consumer power generally sees off only ungratifying products, such as “New Coke” in 2002 and Ford Motor Company’s Edsel car from 1958-60.

Social media and internet shopping are now beyond gratifying; they’re indispensable. They’re also ingenious at perpetuating our appetite for variety, quantity and low prices. Generally, the latter is false economy – the falsest aspect being the price of global warming from so much carbon-profligate manufacture and transport.

Vociferous global campaigns such as the Occupy movement and Extinction Rebellion have failed. It will take many governments enacting laws and regulations in lockstep to block damaging behaviour until errant multinationals have no choice but to alter their business models.

That presupposes that consumers, who are also voters, choose to support such policies. They may be fashionable beltway topics but may prove less popular the further people live from the seat of government.

One country that won’t be joining any such mission is the US. In his United Nations speech, President Donald Trump decried globalisation in favour of nations asserting their sovereignty. But putting America first, like putting New Zealand first, is so far proving more rewarding for each country’s politicians than for their economies.

This editorial was first published in the October 12, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.