Moralizing the Corporation

Moralizing the Corporation

Transnational Activism and Corporate Accountability

Boris Holzer

This insightful book examines how transnational corporations respond to the challenges of anti-corporate activism and political consumerism. In prominent cases involving major corporations such as Nestlé, Nike and Royal Dutch/Shell, transnational activists have successfully mobilized public opinion and consumers against alleged corporate misdemeanours. Campaigns and boycott calls can harm a corporation’s image but, as this book points out, public scrutiny also gives corporations the opportunity to present themselves as responsible and accountable corporate citizens who subscribe to the very norms and values propagated by the activists.

Chapter 5: Mobilizing the Consumer

Boris Holzer

Subjects: business and management, corporate social responsibility, organisation studies, public management, politics and public policy, public administration and management


Transnational advocacy groups ‘frame’ transnational corporations (TNCs) for their alleged misdemeanours because they need targets they can address their claims to. Even if the underlying problems are complex, protest needs to attribute the responsibility to someone: ‘Wholesale critique has no consequences. Protest needs addressees’ (Luhmann 1975, p. 19, trans. B.H.). The claims of transnational activists are therefore directed at those who can influence corporate decision making: governments and consumers. Legislation is of course the most powerful tool to regulate corporate behaviour. But many activists have little trust in the state’s ability to control large corporations (cf. Korten 1995; Monbiot 2000). Their campaigns therefore often rely on consumers, rather than on the supposedly powerless governments, to put pressure on the corporations. It is easy to understand how corporations may become targets of transnational activism. Their decisions and operations are frequently associated with human rights problems and environmental problems. And in contrast to abstract entities like ‘the economy’ they can be challenged and held accountable. In particular, TNCs’ efforts at building ‘global brands’ provide a fertile ground for anti-corporate protest. Anti-corporate transnational activism regularly targets a global company’s most valuable asset: its brand and public image. Global brands like Shell, Nike and McDonald’s are bound up with the companies’ respective reputations, which are seen as major assets in competitive markets.1 Activists have not failed to notice that the endeavours of TNCs to build a ‘corporate image’ make them more susceptible to bad publicity. Obviously the globalization of brands has an ironic consequence:...

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