Monday, April 27, 2009

Corporate Evil

The notion of corporate evil is popping up a bit in workshops and these Facebook discussions so I’m getting on to thinking about that idea further.

It’s all very subjective... my blood pressure rises instantly when I think of my evil accountant holding on to my 'economic stimulus cheque' for more than a week, but on the flipside, I guess he does an OK job for my annual tax return.

Other more obvious examples of corporate evil that involve financial fraud, human rights abuses, and environmental negligence impact us not only as individuals but as a human collective when our moral structures are seemingly failed. A corporate moral good existing in the framework of globalisation and capitalism may be something of an oxymoron.

Here are some obvious examples of corporate evil I’ve been looking into:

Exxon Valdez – In March 1989 an oil tanker spilt 10.9 million gallons of crude oil on the Alaskan coastline creating the greatest oil spill in American waters. In the days immediately after the oil spill, scientists estimated mass mortalities of 1000 to 2800 sea otters, 302 seals, and an astounding 250,000 seabirds. The Local economy loss was estimated to be between up to $580 million US dollars from tourism and recreation industry. For the last 15 years the health effects for 11,000 workers who were exposed to extremely high levels of toxic benzene vapour in the initial stages of cleanup have become a major concern.

ENRON – The company had a range of claims against it ranging from rigging California’s energy prices, years of fraudulent accounting practices, as well as corruption and conspiracy including insider trading. It finally sank to bankruptcy in 2001 after audits revealed the US$ 1billion annual profit was in fact a US$153 million cash flow deficit. “The company lost $60 billion in market value, long-serving employees lost more than $2 billion in pension money and 5,600 people lost their jobs” according to a Time magazine article. The Enron collapse is coined ‘the 9/11 of the financial world’ showing how the evil acts of a few have far reaching social consequences. You can see more at

Corporate abuses don’t stop with environmental disasters and creative accounting leading to stock-market crashes. The claims against Nike for human rights abuses, including child labour, show the degree to which corporate responsibility can fail us as a population over two centuries beyond the industrial revolution.

And all in the name of progress! (?)

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this and how 'corporate evil' stories may be communicated in a museum display.


  1. hi there

    interesting to consider that the events of the Exxon Valdez or Ennron were actually a series of events and decisions. I am not sure this crosses over any other themes in development, but it would be interesting to have an interactive that is about choices - one choice leads to another, leads to another. In no way would it condone the behaviour, but seek to provide a connection between the visitor and the story. Corporate evil is a complex issue, and any way that you have of creating a complex decision-making interactive that gives visitors surprising results might show that given similar decisions to make, we might not end up in a place that different from these situations that we consider evil. Just what were the events leading up to the oil spill? We all know the results, but how did they get there? I have seen a doco about Ennron - facinating. I have no compassion, but it was a sobering tale.

    Leanne Kelly

  2. we think stories of corporate evil fits into our 3rd theme "Faces of Evil" (as described in our february post). This theme will explore various stories of perpetrators and victims. Corporations being just one example of 'perpatrators'.

    The Exxon Valdez oil spill was an unfortunate accident. When looking at Exxon's mitigating actions during (and after) the event, I can't help but wonder if the situation could have been handled differently. I think it would be interesting to compare their policies on evironmental responsibility against their fiscal strategies.

    I suspect a top fortune 500 company such as Exxon, which in 2008 raked the largest annual profit, earning $45.2 billion, didn't get there because of their principles on 'environmental matters'...

    I really like your idea of a 'cause and effect' interactive. Thanks for the suggestion.

  3. Hi again - Was facinated enough to read a little more about the Exxon Valdez incident, as an overview, and the findings of the commission/s afterwards. I was particularly interested in the concept of an accident, and it would appear that Exxon were asking staff to work long shifts(hours = dollars)and under those conditions, the accident occured. So the principals in environmental matters are enmeshed with their principals in human resource matters, it would appear. This made me think about a scale of there such a thing in people's minds? The phrase 'evil begets evil' comes to mind. It is a very facinating concept. Was the accident an accident, or an 'evil' outcome of a series of 'less evil' practices...?

    Very intriguing. Thanks for the opportunity to blog... LK

  4. The ship was apparently outside shipping lanes to avoid pack ice. The initial spill accident then led to a series of other accidents, human and environmental, during the time of the cleanup. From what I've read there was a lack of education of cleanup workers employed by Exxon. The time it took to mtigate the disatster and come up with an effective cleanup plan (there were several options pursued), lack of effective equipment and vessels deployed to assist were all contributing factors in the ongoing environmental problems and human illness concerns. Exxon's practices may have been questionable.

  5. Corporate Evil takes on an all new meaning when we look at hospitals ran by corporations. The inside scoop on this is how they look at revenue and expenditures. I had a CFO tell me one time that the nursing department was a NON-revenue producing department that was a necessary evil. Meaning, that if they could find a robot to do what we did and save the salary, then we would definitely be out of a job. They speak about how they care about the patient and how they are committed to quality care, but are they committed to quality or are they committed to spouting the word quality. EVery year over 100,000 people die because of medical errors. Usually due to untrained, inexperienced staff and large patient loads.