Corporate Ethics in the Era of Globalization: The Promise and Peril of International Environmental Standards

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Abstract

The growing assumption thattransnational corporations (TNCs) will apply``best practice'' and ``international standards''in their operations in developing countries hasseldom been checked against close observationof corporate behavior. In this article, Ipresent a case study, based on field research,of one voluntary initiative to useinternational standards and best practice forenvironmental protection in the AmazonRainforest, by a US-based oil company,Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) in Ecuador. The moststriking finding is that the company refuses todisclose the precise standards that apply toits operations. This, and the refusal todisclose other important environmentalinformation, make it impossible to verifyindependently Oxy's claims of environmentalexcellence, or assess the effectiveness of theinitiative. At the same time, Oxy uses theinvocation of international standards to wrapitself in a veneer of corporate responsibility;reassure government officials and localresidents; cultivate confusion about standardsand practices that apply to the operations;deflect meaningful oversight and transparency;and arbitrarily legitimize norms that have beendefined by special interests. In short,international standards offer great promise forneeded environmental improvements; but can alsobe used to impede, rather than advance,corporate responsibility and the development ofeffective environmental law at the nationallevel. These findings suggest that for theapplication of international standards to bemeaningful, the international community needsto move beyond statements of principle anddevelop mechanisms that can be used toevaluate, verify, and monitor independentlyenvironmental claims by TNCs.