Moralizing the Corporation
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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.
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Chapter 8: From Accounts to Accountability

Boris Holzer


Organizations are regarded as ‘actors’ because they produce effects that can and must be attributed to them – not only desired products and services, but also the hazards, damages and side-effects of their operations. If others are affected by such adverse consequences, they may seek compensation within the formal limits of legal liability. Organizations may also be held accountable for their actions in more informal ways, however. If external observers regard organizational decisions or their consequences as unacceptable, albeit within the boundaries of legality, they will seek to ‘moralize’ organizational behaviour. The organization is thus forced to provide explanations and excuses for its alleged misdemeanours. Corporate communication crises and public relations disasters such as Shell’s conflict with Greenpeace about the disposal of the Brent Spar oil buoy, Nestlé’s infant formula debacle and Nike’s confrontation with human rights activists about sweatshop production demonstrate how even resourceful transnational corporations (TNCs) can be forced to justify and sometimes to change their decisions. In such a situation, an organization must give acceptable accounts of its actions. The ability and social obligation to give an account are distinctive features of actors – both individual and corporate. As a consequence of successful campaigning and increased awareness of their impact, organizations that enter the public stage as ‘corporate actors’ anticipate the demand for accounts and thus seek to define the extent – and the limits – of their accountability. In this chapter I discuss the emergence of accountability practices as a form of corporate self-presentation. My primary point of reference...

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