Transnational Activism and Corporate Accountability
Chapter 5: Mobilizing the Consumer
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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