There are times when you feel confident about the future. You observe a group of young people and think: “The future of the world is in their hands, Good.” I had that feeling when I spoke about shareholder advocacy at the Youth Summit organized by the Sierra Club and Amnesty International. I was moved and impressed by the passion and sophistication of these high school and college activists. After a weekend of workshops, the Youth Summit participants then proceeded to Capitol Hill to lobby for the new International Right to Know Bill. I am just as optimistic about the future of that bill too.
Global economic deregulation and privatization of government has greatly increased the power of multinational corporations. Lax government regulation of business and the adoption of ever more far-reaching pro-corporate trade agreements stand witness to the shrinking power of citizens and communities to hold companies accountable.
The International Right to Know Bill is a new tool to promote corporate responsibility. Building on similar U.S. laws, the bill would extend right-to-know principles to the foreign operations of American companies. If the bill has the same impact internationally as U.S. disclosure laws have had domestically, this could result in significant improvements in the environmental, labor and human rights records of American companies abroad.
In the area of the environment, the proposed bill would apply U.S. requirements regarding the disclosure of pollutants at corporate plants worldwide. It would also require reporting of natural resources extracted, processed or purchased. David Waskow of Friends of the Earth told Inter Press Service that U.S. disclosure laws, such as the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, have helped persuade U.S. companies to reduce their toxic releases in half. He believes those global disclosure laws could for instance help press companies like Newmont Mining to reduce mining pollution in Indonesia.
The bill would also require U.S. companies to inform all of its employees about hazardous chemicals in the workplace and provide occupational safety and health reports, both in compliance with current U.S. standards. Moreover, companies would be required to disclose its facilities and contractors operating abroad. This requirement would clearly help watchdog organizations give consumers a better idea of the conditions under which products are made.
The bill would also require greater disclosure of arrangements between corporations and security forces. In addition, companies would be required to report on their impact on the rights of local and indigenous communities. Folabi Olagbaju, director of Amnesty International’s human rights and environment campaign, told Inter Press Service of the value of such disclosure to the communities of Nigeria’s oil producing regions. Companies such as Chevron and Shell have come under fire for deaths connected to the security of their facilities. Greater disclosure of security arrangements could well press the oil companies to pay greater respect to human rights.
All of this information would be reported annually to U.S. government agencies and the public through a consolidated website. There would also be criminal penalties for non-compliance as well as the possibility of citizen suits.
The experience of the U.S. is that disclosure laws drive better corporate performance. Such laws help provide citizens, consumers and shareholders with the information they need to hold corporations accountable. They also help spur companies to first measure and then manage their impact on society and the environment.
Please join Trillium Asset Management in the growing coalition lobbying for this important new bill.