The Exxon Valdez tragedy of 24 March, 1989, marked the first birth-pangs of corporate responsibility.

Adrien Lopez reflects on why many in Alaska still cannot believe in ethical business. While the Exxon Valdez oil spill 20 years ago can be largely attributed to triggering the modern corporate social responsibility movement, commercial fishermen in Alaska affected by the 11 million gallons of oil spilled into Prince William Sound are yet to be made believers.

The massive oil spill on Good Friday, March 24, 1989 was America’s worst environmental disaster. It was caused when the Exxon Valdez oil tanker – owned by the former Exxon Shipping Company, a division of what is now Exxon Mobil – struck Bligh Reef in the early hours of the morning.

The outrage caused organisations and citizens the world over to move quickly to create the Valdez Principles, a voluntary code of environmental conduct for companies.

The Valdez Principles formed the basis for the founding of Ceres (Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies), established in 1990 to work with companies and investors to address sustainability challenges.

A few years later, the Amsterdam-based Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), a household name for those working in corporate social responsibility, split away from Ceres to focus exclusively on the task of promoting transparency through increased corporate reporting on social and environmental performance.

The Exxon Valdez (which coincidentally was the name of the tanker and the town where it ran aground), along with other events like the Union Carbide explosion in India in 1984, caused enough reactionary momentum to consolidate a corporate social responsibility movement, made up of organisations like CERES and GRI, that has tried to keep pace with the challenges of globalization.

Bitter taste

Meanwhile, a world away in southcentral Alaska, a place where you cannot see Russia from your house, and where fancy acronyms like CSR and GRI haven’t yet been translated to English, the only household name that ignites and unites is Exxon.

The destruction caused to communities, people, the environment and the livelihood of thousands of Alaskans and future generations, was not an exercise in corporate social responsibility, to say the least.

Neither was the ongoing court battle between the Exxon defendants and the local commercial fishermen, a fight that dragged on until last year when the Supreme Court stepped in to defend the struggling company from being liable for the full amount.

The 33,000 plaintiffs waited almost 20 years to receive a settlement they had hoped might come close to equaling their losses.

Unfortunately, they had to face the harsh reality that the promising words expressed to them by former Exxon president Dan Cornett back in 1989 – “You won’t have a problem. I don’t care if you believe that or not. That’s the truth. You have had some good luck and you don’t realize it. You have Exxon and we do business straight. We will consider whatever it takes to keep you whole...” – was just another broken promise.

Opinions of Governor Sarah Palin aside, she has helped to defend the fishermen and sided with Alaskans demanding accountability from Exxon.

Some progress

Reflections on this twenty year anniversary are bittersweet. On one hand, we must raise our glasses to applaud the tireless efforts of international organisations who have pushed so that now, in the year 2009, corporate responsibility has been on the lips of most large companies.

It has branched out to focus on more than just the private sector, but the integration of socially responsible practices by the public sector, labour unions, consumers and civil society organizations through the development of the first International Standard on Social Responsibility, ISO 26000.

Yet, on the other hand, celebration is not in order when large companies like ExxonMobil have yet to see the light and be accountable for their past corporate irresponsibility.

At a moment when most businesses are struggling to stay afloat, Exxon made history in February by posting the highest quarterly profits ever for a US company.

By the time Exxon gets around to rejecting Milton Friedman and getting on board with corporate responsibility, Alaskans will be left clinging to a melting iceberg.

Adrien Lopez was born and raised in Valdez, Alaska (her father was the harbourmaster at the time of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill). She currently works on corporate social responsibility for the Chilean Government in Santiago, Chile.

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