On the 11 and 12 of May at the Regents Park Marriott Hotel in Swiss Cottage, London, representatives of some big corporations were gathered for a two-day conference entitled "What's the point of Corporate Responsibility?" The delegates and speakers included people from BP, Shell, Gap, Timberland, Marks & Spencer, Coca-Cola and McDonald's. They discussed such weighty topics as "How smart companies use corporate responsibility for commercial objectives." And "Is corporate responsibility simply another management fad?"
For opponents of globalisation, the conference was the equivalent of the Harrods sale - some probably slept outside to be first in the queue to heckle. Faced with the prospect of these companies appearing as standard-bearers of ethical business practices, protesters gathered outside under the banner of "You're having a fucking larf!"They waved placards with "Child Obesity, Animal Cruelty, Union Busting, Mmmm We're Loving it!" and "Baby Gap - old enough to wear them, old enough to make them!"
Inside, I managed to avoid paying the minimum entrance fee of £295 plus VAT and joined the afternoon session. On the platform was a former McDonald's legal man and I asked him if, when a company's very raison d'etre is to increase profits through higher sales and lowering costs such as wages (encouraging union busting, contract labour or child labour), isn't the very notion of "corporate responsibility" just window-dressing?
His reply was illuminating: "No, I don't accept the premise. Because shareholders will not invest in a company that doesn't have social worth, they will simply disinvest from the company."
In his vision of the corporate Shangri-la, shareholders are moral guardians. No doubt they turn up to annual general meetings dressed in white robes, with long beards and carrying staves, asking the board, who sit cross-legged with shaven heads in front of them: "Tell us wise ones, if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, can it appear in a Greenpeace report on deforestation?"
The reality is that shareholders are interested in profits and bend their moral viewpoints to suit the returns on their investment. Over the past 200 years, civil movements have forced social change, not corporations. I could be wrong, but I just don't recall the abolition of slavery being preceded by a vote of no confidence in the board.
My new best friend, the ex-McDonald's man, continued our conversation after the session. Unprompted, he started to talk about Coca-Cola and the accusations that the Coca-Cola bottlers in Colombia (a company 46 per cent owned by Coca-Cola) have conspired or hired paramilitaries to kill, kidnap, torture and disappear trade unionists working for the bottling plant. The bottlers face charges in the US in a case brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act. My new best friend went on to say that Coke is in trouble because it didn't take these accusations seriously.
I found this conversation incredible. Coca-Cola was being criticised on ethical issues by McDonald's! This is off the scale of moral equivalence; this is like the BNP saying: "That Prince Philip, he's a bit racist."
Coca-Cola also faces questions into its role in the increase of childhood obesity, its sponsorship of sporting events, and the saga of water depletion at the Coke plant in Kerala (southern India).
Coca-Cola also has an interesting past. While Coke was storming through Europe in the 1940s supporting American GI's , Coca-Cola GmbH (Germany) was busy collaborating with the Nazi regime. The company advertised in the Nazi press, thus financially supporting it. It built bottling plants in occupied territories. Then in 1941, when Coca-Cola GmbH could no longer get the syrup from America to make Coke, it invented a new drink specifically for the Nazi beverage market, out of the ingredients available to it. That drink was Fanta. Yessiree! Fanta is the drink of Nazis!
As many of the images of Coke's collaboration have disappeared or are difficult to find, the artist Tracey Sanders-Wood and I decided we would try and recreate them. Using the internet and word of mouth, we have asked people with any kind of artistic bent to recreate, imagine or subvert the images of Coke's Nazi links. Already we have received more than 350 works of art, from schoolchildren, keen amateurs and well-known artists. The exhibition opens on 24 May at the Nancy Victor Gallery in Charlotte Street, London, under the title "Coca-Cola Nazi Adverts", and plans to tour afterwards.
Although a few artworks of Coke's embarrassing past aren't likely to bring the multinational crashing to the ground, it is better than waiting for shareholders to finish their spiritual journeys to enlightenment and press for change.