Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Levi’s Children

Coming to Terms with Human Rights in the Global Marketplace

by Karl Schoenberger
  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date June 13, 2001
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3812-5
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Over the last decade, ugly allegations of corporate complicity in human rights violations have exploded into one of the most controversial issues of our time, even inspiring massive demonstrations in Seattle at the World Trade Organization’s meeting in the fall of 1999. Using the story of Levi Strauss & Company as a guide, Levi’s Children offers a much-needed perspective on the challenges faced by businesses and activists alike.

Levi Strauss is perhaps the ideal model for understanding how globalization has brought companies face-to-face with accusations of human rights violations. For years, the iconic blue-jeans maker has been a leader in corporate social responsibility, and its brand name has become synonymous with the American values of freedom and individualism. Determined to maintain its principles in the face of global competition, the company long resisted closing its U.S. factories as other manufacturers turned to foreign labor to cut costs. Yet even Levi Strauss, in order to remain competitive, has ultimately had to source production overseas in places tainted by rampant sweatshop abuse and political repression.

The company earned the praise of human rights activists for initiating a groundbreaking global code of conduct in 1991 before a national furor forced other companies to adopt similar codes. A year later, Levi Strauss was one of the first multinationals to withdraw from Burma, repudiating the repressive military junta. Yet the reversal of its China policy in 1998, five years after it said it would phase out sourcing relationships there on human rights grounds, revealed Levi’s struggle to balance ethical values against profits.

Schoenberger takes a critical look at Levi Strauss’s decisions, placing them in the larger context of the contentious human-rights debate. He is deeply sensitive to the interests and limitations of multinationals, yet he also calls on them to engage proactively in protecting the rights of citizens of foreign countries where they do business. He stresses the need for rigorous corporate transparency that honestly informs the public of business practices. And he argues for systemic regulation by local and international government bodies if the business community cannot manage the problem on its own.


Chapter One: True West

When Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, Who is on the Lord’s side? let him come unto me. And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, Put every man his sword by his side, and go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour. And the children of Levi did according to the word of Moses: and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men. –Exodus 32:26–28

On the scale of things, the slaughter of some three thousand Israelites by the swords of their brethren–when Moses instructed the sons of Levi to smite the worshipers of the golden calf–was a relatively minor event in the context of the many appalling atrocities described in the Old Testament.

Had the scene been captured live on Cable News Network, or depicted in sober tones in the next morning’s New York Times, the citizenry of a modern wired world would recoil in absolute horror at this brutal party discipline. And in doing so, we would probably miss the allegorical point altogether. Moses had descended from Mt. Sinai with a mandate from heaven inscribed in stone, ten zero-tolerance rules of human behavior dictated by God, only to find his people enraptured in spiritual anarchy, dancing wantonly before a false idol. This was a flagrant violation of the First Commandment. Certainly some form of punishment was called for if Moses was ever going to lead his flock to the Promised Land, even if it did mean casting the Fifth Commandment (Thou shalt not kill) to the wind. Perhaps this was why Moses smashed the stone tablets in utter frustration.

Now consider replacing Moses in the passage from the Book of Exodus with the eminent personage of Deng Xiaoping, the late patriarch of contemporary China. Deng was once China’s most prominent political prisoner. He had suffered persecutions of biblical proportions during the anarchy of the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, only to resurrect himself and seize absolute power. Mighty Deng was determined to lead his people from the ideological bondage of impoverished communism to the Promised Land of free-market capitalism, albeit with guidance from persistent “Chinese characteristics”–which evidently meant brutal authoritarian control. In May 1989, throngs of student protesters gathered at Tiananmen Square, the sprawling ceremonial plaza in central Beijing, across the street from the Forbidden City, where China’s emperors once ruled behind the Gate of Heavenly Peace. As tension rose on the square, the demonstrators fell to worshiping the false idol of the “Goddess of Democracy,” a giant Styrofoam-and-plaster statue that bore a distinct likeness to the Statue of Liberty. The goddess was assembled by rebellious art students right under the unblinking gaze of Chairman Mao Zedong’s billboard-size propaganda portrait on the Forbidden City’s Gate of Heavenly Peace, across the street from the square. Mr. Deng did what any righteous old man would do when his own legitimacy and the binding faith of Communist Party is challenged. He called in the troops, the sons of Mao.

The story of what happened next has been told and retold many times, becoming a modern-day parable of innocent idealism and state evil. It may never be known exactly how many unarmed students and citizens were mowed down by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the night of June 3-4, 1989, when peasant soldiers shot their way down a jammed boulevard toward the square. The official count is around two hundred, but informed estimates range far higher. Unlike the grim scribes of Moses’ long march, China’s chroniclers have yet to devise a credible system of statistical accountability in such matters.

The idea here is not to make light of mass political murder, or to justify the paranoia of Deng Xiaoping and his pathological hard-line supporters. Nor is any disrespect intended for the powerful archetypes and origin myths that are embedded deeply in the psyches of those of us who descend from the Judeo-Christian tradition and who venerate the story of Moses. Western civilization orients itself around these stories and must navigate by them, however imperfectly, through the chaos of life’s meaning.

The point, rather, is that when idealistic nongovernmental organization (NGO) activists engage corporations in dialogue about the preachy concepts of human rights theory, it is important to bear in mind what everybody should already know: Moral conflicts cannot be distilled neatly into a choice between right and wrong, good and evil. Sometimes you have to go with the best solution, even if it means violating some cardinal rule. This is situational ethics, the amoral, politically expedient, and sometimes astoundingly hypocritical process that has prevailed since the dawn of civilization.

The words moral and ethical get tossed around so loosely, they are too often used interchangeably, conveniently muddling discussions among people who are responsible for making moral and ethical decisions. Indeed, even the dictionary definitions overlap somewhat. But for the sake of consistency, let us say that morality relates to the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong, and ethics has to do with conforming to a particular set of standards for behavior. Situational ethics might be understood as the practice of using a fluid set of values to justify doing what is necessary to serve one’s pragmatic self-interests, collectively or individually. This self-centeredness is mitigated by an intrinsic assumption that it would be against one’s own interests to do horrible things to others, lest they be done in return or otherwise invite the wrath of an external wielder of power. Learned theologians and philosophers and academicians no doubt have contrary and more sophisticated views on this. But they seldom have to make business decisions in the real world.

Ethics is a balancing act, whereby behavior is constrained by obligations to the collective interests of one’s immediate group or community. The overriding obligation can then extend diffusely in concentric circles to larger societies, political parties, nation states, religious sects, international conspiracies–”stakeholders,” as proponents of corporate social responsibility would say.

It doesn’t matter if it’s the biblical Moses liquidating worshipers of the golden calf, or Soviet leader Joseph Stalin murdering millions of counterrevolutionary peasants, or Harry Truman dropping the atomic bomb on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In business it could be Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates snaring unsuspecting consumers into using his Internet browser software at the exclusion of a competitor’s product, a practice vigorously contested by the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust division, and if you think about it, you might agree it’s simply wrong. But it’s also ingenious. With situational ethics, distinguishing between what’s wrong and right is something that necessarily depends on your circumstances and your point of view. Notwithstanding all the striving toward piety and global peace, toward the strictures against man’s cruelty to his fellow man, history suggests that the puny human’s franchise on earth is one of bending the rules, of subjugation, and periodically of calculated carnage.

* * *


Conventional wisdom dictates that the world reached a turning point in collective moral repugnance after bearing witness to the indescribable horrors of the Nazi Holocaust in World War II.

The atrocity has since been conceptualized and encapsulated as an isolated event, perpetrated against European Jewry by a depraved and totalitarian military regime. But at the close of the century, stories continued to emerge about the many civilian accomplices who willfully turned a blind eye to–or secretly supported and profited from–the mechanism of the Holocaust. Swiss banks had laundered the gold that the Germans stole from their Jewish victims, some of it ripped from the teeth of the dead. These prominent and powerful financial institutions were only reluctantly settling claims on the disputed booty after fifty years of denial.

Survivors of the Nazis’ slave labor camps filed class action lawsuits claiming billions of dollars in compensation for the work they were forced to perform at factories owned by such German industrial giants as Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz, and Siemens. Investigators examined whether the German subsidiaries of Ford and General Motors might have collaborated similarly in the Nazi labor scheme–suspicions that American automakers vigorously denied. Volkswagen, the brainchild of Adolf Hitler himself, did not have the option of explaining away its tainted past, and it settled swiftly with lawyers representing former slave laborers. Coincidentally, the company was introducing a newly restyled model of its classic Volkswagen Beetle compact car in 1998, launching a blitzkrieg of nostalgic feel-good television commercials in a gambit to recapture lost market share in the United States. The mere dollars-and-cents cost of settling on alleged corporate liability for past injustices, the VW Bug campaign suggests, pales in comparison with the price of potential fallout from an unresolved human rights scandal. If seeing a cute candy-colored little car on the street evoked lurid visions of Nazi slave labor, emaciated skeletons of Jews and Gypsies and political dissidents working the assembly line, Volkswagen could never repair the damage to its image in the American car-buying public.

In what may prove to be the last act of German war reparation for the crimes of the Nazi era, German government and business leaders agreed in December 1999 to settle the forced-labor law suits with a $5.1 billion payment to surviving victims. Initial reports suggested that the German subsidiaries of GM and Ford were expected to join the accord, but that the settlement may not eliminate the challenges of related class action suits filed in the United States.

If anything can be considered an absolute and unmitigated evil, it would have to be the bureaucratized genocide of the Nazi Holocaust. Civilized people–politicians, jurists, and captains of industry–went insane en masse and kept copious records of the blood-lust. The stories of imperial Japan’s gruesome atrocities across Asia also resonated deeply in the aftermath of World War II, adding to the angst. The United Nations in 1948 expressed the world’s feelings of outrage, remorse, and shame when it enshrined the principles of a postwar collective conscience in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The moral tone of the document’s preamble lays out high hopes for humanity: “Disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people…. It is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law….”

The declaration was a radical document, which, in the words of Henry Steiner, a human rights scholar at Harvard Law School, has had a “subversive effect” on the sovereignty of individual states. “However self-evident it may appear today, the Declaration bore a more radical message than many of its framers perhaps recognized,” Steiner wrote on the document’s fiftieth anniversary. “It proceeded to work its subversive path through many rooted doctrines of international law, forever changing the discourse of international relations on issues vital to human decency and peace.”

Over a period of five decades this document inspired new generations of legal scholars, launched careers in various human rights bureaucracies and NGOs, and generated a canon of literature on theory and practice. Its application in the Helsinki accord contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union through an open dialogue on human rights. The inspiration it provided in the South Africa divestiture movement helped bring an end to apartheid.

Sadly, however, the aspirations of the declaration appeared woefully unrealized as the document entered its fifty-first year. The 1998 holiday season opened with the United States and Britain raining bombs and cruise missiles on Iraq to enforce a failing United Nations scheme to prevent Iraqi president Saddam Hussein from developing the technology for weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, international relief agencies protested that thousands of Iraqi children were dying each week for lack of adequate food and medical supplies, a tragedy caused by devastating UN economic sanctions, ostensibly aimed at starving out Saddam. In a cynical nod to moral decency in warfare, the Anglo-American bombing strike was halted abruptly on the first day of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting.

A year later, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milo’evic took over in the role of America’s favorite despot, committing atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and greeting air strikes by war planes of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) with contemptuous defiance. It was far from clear who had the moral high ground–or how to end the cycle of carnage in the Balkans. Both sides were wrong: American-led NATO extracted an intolerable civilian death toll from the “collateral damage” of its bombing. The Serbian task of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo took on genocidal elements, with hundreds of thousands of civilian refugees fleeing burning villages and mass graves–and dodging NATO bombs. When the smoke cleared and Kosovar refugees returned to their wrecked villages, reports of revenge killings of Serbian neighbors began, making the mission of NATO peacekeeping troops on the ground seem impossible.

Where is the crisp line between the good and evil in these terrifying episodes of international diplomacy? U.S. commander in chief William Jefferson Clinton ordered the attack on Iraq while he was under impeachment by Congress, accused of lying under oath about a sexual peccadillo with a White House intern. The immediate effect of bombing Yugoslavia was to galvanize popular support for Milo’evic, stoking the fascist fires of Serbian nationalism instead of containing them. In a fluke accident, a U.S. stealth bomber attack on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade had devastating effects on Sino-U.S. relations, cutting off the fragile dialogue on human rights.

Given the fact that not everybody can agree about the existence of a bearded, paternal, and monotheistic Godhead keeping accurate tabs on the human folly below, we are all left to flounder. Perhaps it is a related belief–the illusion that there can be a singular truth in global society–that keeps the international scene from total rudderless drift. A civil religion for the world, if you will, with the United Nations offering the liturgy–and America, the global cop, trying to enforce the peace with minimal collateral damage. Amid this chaos, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights remains a potent reference point–if only by default. It may not be the beacon of bright light that many of its more passionate advocates would hold it to be, but there’s nothing else by which to navigate. This set of beliefs and principles is far from perfect, and certainly can be improved, but right now it is the best and only game in town.

It is important to note the extent of sharp disagreement that took place in the United Nations General Assembly when the language of the declaration was drafted, as some nations argued that its lofty goals were simply unattainable. They wanted more latitude, more time to develop their economies and build their political institutions. Had it not been for the stout resolution of Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady who browbeat her fellow UN ambassadors into a compromise, the declaration might never have won passage. The groundbreaking document was adopted unanimously as a non-binding resolution, and though it has considerable powers of moral suasion, it does not carry the force of international law.

That lapse was addressed in later attempts to canonize the human rights theory in a set of UN treaties, primarily with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which nations could sign and ratify should they be so disposed. A dirty little secret is that at the time of this writing, the United States still had not ratified the latter of these two covenants, more than twenty years after becoming a signatory to it. It did not ratify the more important treaty on civil and political rights until 1992, three years after the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing and twenty-six years after its adoption by the UN General Assembly.

Amnesty International (AI), the London-based organization renowned for pressuring dictatorships to release prisoners of conscience, made headlines in October 1998 when it issued a scathing critique on the state of human rights in the United States. The group cited serious violations of international human rights standards in the arbitrary and racially biased application of the death penalty, the widespread abuses of police brutality, and the indefinite detention of political asylum seekers, among other controversial legal practices. Amnesty International accused the U.S. government of maintaining a “double standard” where international law, is concerned. “The International system of human rights protection built over the past 50 years is based on the understanding not only that human rights are universal, but that they transcend the sovereignty of individual states,” the report said. “Despite the USA’s leading role in establishing this system, it has been reluctant to submit itself to international human rights law and to accept the same minimum standards for its own conduct that it demands from other countries.”

The AI report had to have caused glee within the ruling circles in Beijing, where officials have long pointed to injustices in the American system in defense of China’s own repugnant human rights track record. China, to everyone’s surprise, had just committed itself to signing the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, making a strategic step toward shoring up its international respectability at the same time it was conducting business as usual, cracking down, for example, on a nascent movement to launch an opposition party. Signing the covenant, of course, was hardly tantamount to a commitment to abide by it in practice, even after ratification by the National People’s Congress. China’s constitution already granted a host of civil and political rights to its people, rights that for the most part existed only on paper. While the United States has a legal system with serious flaws and inconsistencies, China is a nation where the rule of law exists largely in theory, not in practice.

The subject of human rights provides fertile material for mutual recrimination, particularly when its principles are exploited in the gamesmanship among nations. But what was radically new about the human rights discourse when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was being feted on its fiftieth birthday–December 10, 1998–was that the scope of its purview had broadened significantly from a historic focus on rogue governments and bloodthirsty armies to an intense interest in international business. In the grips of middle age, the UN document had been rejuvenated and given new meaning by the reckless vitality of the global marketplace. The Dickensian excesses caused by international capitalism in the post-cold war era begged the question of who would take moral responsibility for the injustices–the collateral damage–of economic globalization, and how.

* * *


After the end of the cold war, at the beginning of the 1990s, free-market capitalism reigned triumphant, uncontested by the tired theories of central planning and socialist dogma. Multinational corporations were feeling their oats and, by their sheer size and the amount of capital they controlled, were rapidly expanding their influence in global affairs. A surge in megamergers accelerated this trend. For instance, America’s two largest off companies, Exxon and Mobil, announced a $80 billion merger in late 1998 to resurrect part of the old Standard Oil Trust, which had been broken up at the beginning of the century by antimonopoly regulations. Now the combined annual revenues of these two behemoths, more than $200 billion, would be roughly equivalent to the gross domestic product of Indonesia, one of the world’s largest oil-producing nations and the fourth most populous. The new enterprise’s CEO went on record boasting about the synergistic efficiencies of slashing nine thousand jobs at one stroke.

In the absence of a coherent international political order, big corporations, more than ever before, were driving government policies with lobbying and fund-raising pressures. Giant hedge funds and foreign-exchange arbitrageurs were moving huge sums of capital in and out of developing countries, causing some devastating effects on local currencies, economies, and societies. Indonesia, where ethnic and religious violence continued to rock the nation long after the collapse of the economy and the fall of the autocratic President Suharto, is a prime example. In this desperate climate the Indonesian military and the local militias under its control ran amok on the disputed island of East Timor in September 1999, terrorizing the local Catholic population after the former Portuguese colony voted overwhelmingly for independence from the Jakarta regime. One likely explanation for the bloodshed was that the thousands of Indonesian troops occupying East Timor were enraged at the prospect of losing their jobs and their stake in the island’s economy after independence; there were scant opportunities to make a living elsewhere.

Investing in Indonesia could no longer be considered business as usual. The situation demanded a new approach to setting standards on ethical behavior and accountability for the powerful multinational firms that shaped the destiny of developing nations.

UN secretary general Kofi Annan articulated this growing concern when he spoke to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 1999. In calling for a “Global Compact” on human rights with business leaders, Annan lamented the unintended consequences of the new economic order. “Globalization is a fact of life. But I believe we have underestimated its fragility,” he said. “The problem is this: The spread of markets far outpaces the ability of societies and their political system to adjust to them, let alone to guide the course they take. History teaches us that such an imbalance between the economic, social, and political realms can never be sustained for very long.”

Annan called on his audience to assume greater responsibility for the problems of laissez-faire capitalism, such as the lack of adequate social safety net programs in developing economies. “Specifically, I call upon you–individually through your firms, and collectively through your business associations–to embrace, support, and enact a set of core values in the areas of human rights, labor standards, and environmental practices.”

Annan’s pronouncement may have greater importance at a symbolic level than in practical terms. But his imprimatur helped legitimize a rising tide of intellectual criticism aimed at economic globalization and the transnational corporations driving it. Literally hundreds of books were published on the topic of globalization in the latter half of the 1990s–the Internet bookseller Amazon.com listed more than four hundred titles containing the word globalization in late 1999. Many of these treatments challenged long-held assumptions about the phenomenon’s effects on the people it purportedly lifts out of poverty. Dani Rodrik, a professor of international political economy at Harvard, energized the debate on the consequences of the global economy with his 1997 work, Has Globalization Gone Too Far? Financial journalist William Greider describes some of the tragic ironies perpetrated on developing societies in his book One World, Ready or Not. Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, weighed in with a somewhat more optimistic view of globalization in his popular book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree.

The vision of roping corporations into a process taking responsibility for and seeking practical solutions to problems in the global economy is not new to the UN secretary general. But it remains an elusive idea. Despite its prestige, the United Nations is a gigantic international bureaucracy, crippled by all the limitations that beset any bureaucracy, with the additional burdens of linguistic, political, and cultural schisms. It does not appear that the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCHR), with its plate full of the usual heinous atrocities, was equipped to handle the administrative aspects of a global human rights compact with business, as proposed by the secretary general. A two-man team in the secretary general’s office in New York was charged with the task of designing the program, borrowing assistance from the UNHCHR, the International Labor Organization (ILO), and other UN agencies.

Whatever the UN did on business and human rights, it would have to deal with imbedded skepticism among advocacy groups. The San Francisco-based Transnational Resource & Action Center (TRAC), also known by its Internet nom de guerre, Corporate Watch, spewed venom at the world body after learning in March of 1999 that the UN Development Program planned to solicit funds from private corporations to create a “global sustainable development facility.” TRAC alleged that the program would seek money from companies with “tarnished records on human rights, labor, and the environment,” allowing them to “greenwash” their public images and in doing so undermine the UN’s credibility and independence.

It seemed likely that any plan of action for integrating private corporations into operations authorized by the United Nations charter would require a laborious process of consensus building between business groups and NGOs from the advocacy community. It will not be easy to establish the kind of mutual trust necessary to breach a stubborn perception gap and raise awareness among international CEOs about Annan’s human rights concerns. This is a challenge explored in the 1998 documentary film Globalization and Human Rights, in which prominent political and business leaders–many of them interviewed at the 1998 World Economic Forum in Davos, a year before Annan’s proposal–pondered the new responsibilities of international corporations.

Host Charlene Hunter-Gault sets the scene by musing: “Globalization and human rights–how an interdependent global economy affects the rights of people. Can money and morality coexist?” George Soros, the financier and notorious currency trader blamed for worsening the Asian economic crisis by some Third World critics–most notably the firebrand Malaysian leader Mahathir bin Muhammad–concedes the fragility of the capitalist system. “Due to its success, it penetrates into areas of life–of society–where it doesn’t really belong,” Soros tells the camera. “There are other needs in society which cannot be fulfilled by the market, and those needs are neglected. So there is some market failure, but much greater social failure–in fact, a failure of the political process.”

Amnesty International’s secretary general, Pierre Sane, describes the limited expectations of the advocacy community. “We do not expect business to become a human rights defender. We know that if business adopts a human rights language and behavior, it will be as a means to the long-term objective of securing greater and greater profits,” Sane said in the documentary. “For us, human rights is an end, it’s an absolute. So there is a journey that we can go together. There are some tactical alliances we can develop.

* * *


The problem with the discourse on human rights and business is that very few NGOs or agencies can take an honest middle-ground position and build an effective alliance in what has become a highly polarized and emotional debate. The watchdog groups that play a critical role in exposing corporate complicity with human rights violations rarely have the willingness or the resources to work constructively with business on the solutions.

Mainstream human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have developed business-related programs in recent years, but they don’t quite offer a coherent structure to bridge the impasse between corporations and adversarial critics. Any party purporting to take a nonadvocacy, neutral approach is eyed with deep suspicion by both sides. Indeed, gathering objective information for the writing of this book involved an excruciating process of allaying the fears of information sources in both the business and the advocacy communities, nearly all of whom challenged the author in a disarming “identify friend or foe” defense. The level of instinctive mistrust was a tremendous obstacle.

Finding a middle path to navigate this ethical dilemma is not hopeless, however. There have been a few strong efforts to moderate between the extremes. The Minnesota Center for Corporate Responsibility helped the Caux Roundtable–another elite grouping of international industrialists–to adopt a model ethical code, Principles for Business. Britain’s Ethical Trading Initiative has brought government officials, human rights activists, and business leaders into dialogue and close collaboration on common problems. The New York-based Council on Economic Priorities uses a positive carrot rather than a negative stick approach to business by ranking corporations on a social responsibility index and offering a certification program for good labor practices. And the Clinton administration prodded the Apparel Industry Partnership (AIP) to build a consensus among companies, unions, and human rights NGOs. That deliberative process failed to keep the unions onboard, but it resulted in the creation of an experimental labor-monitoring organization, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), which may prove to be a step in the right direction.

Most notable among these efforts has been the rapid rise of the San Francisco-based Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a business-friendly group that conducts training and advises corporations on human rights policies and other social accountability issues. The magazine Stratos defined BSR as “an audacious experiment in common sense, research and sharing that aims to prove the obvious but not so obvious fact that what’s good for humanity is good for business.” To its credit, the organization has had a catalytic effect on getting top executives of some fairly stodgy corporations to think seriously about the ethical framework for doing business. It has established a safe haven for talking about values, short-circuiting the predictable defensiveness one would expect to be provoked by the moralistic concerns of social responsibility.

BSR measures somewhat short in terms of openness to the news media and to legitimate human rights researchers, but it can argue in its defense that this fundamental lack of transparency is necessitated by the skittishness of its press-shy corporate members. Indeed, the motivation for many companies to turn to BSR in the first place is to develop policies that will protect them from having dirty laundry aired in the public domain. To make progress on winning their hearts and minds, a safe environment is essential, even if the process itself eludes public accountability.

Levi Strauss & Co., it just so happens, is a major benefactor and a power behind BSR, providing critical funding and personnel that helped turn the organization from a small operation of gadfly Washington lobbyists and idealistic entrepreneurs–like Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s Homemade ice cream–into the influential force it is today.

Robert H. Dunn, the nonprofit group’s executive director, was Levi’s vice president for corporate affairs and its point man on human rights and social responsibility policies until he left the company after thirteen years to lead BSR in 1994. Dunn, a Connecticut lawyer, had worked in a variety of political positions in the 1970s before joining Levi Strauss, serving as an aide at Jimmy Carter’s White House, an assistant to the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, and a cabinet member in Wisconsin state government. His political experience, one might say, equips him well to take on the improbable task of motivating staid corporate executives to rethink some of the fundamental premises of how–and why–they do business.

A pilgrimage to BSR’s office on Mission Street in San Francisco is a strange encounter with the “politically correct” business workplace of the future. A brochure displayed in the reception area advises one that the walls are covered with odorless paint that is free of toxic formaldehyde, crystalline silica, and ethylene glycol. The hardwood floors are laid with “certified sustainably harvested pine.” The lights that illuminate the airy open loftlike space use low-voltage bulbs connected to energy-saving motion detectors. Partitions, carpets, and furniture are all made of either recycled or recyclable materials. The walls of the office cubicles that ring the space and the conference room in the center are paneled with (recyclable) glass, brightening the sprawling space and giving it–intentionally, said Dunn–an aura of transparency.

This spirit of transparency is something that Dunn’s organization cannot claim to embody, at least where the free flow of information is concerned. But it is one of the values that BSR and the businesses it works with hopefully will, in time, learn is to their advantage. The group’s 1,400 members are small, large, and very large, including such industrial titans as AT&T, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, Honeywell, and Polaroid. BSR boasts an on-line “Global Business Responsibility Resource Center,” a clearinghouse that provides an introductory framework for the major issues of corporate responsibility and lists other organizations with like-minded missions. Cited among the top four sponsors of the resource center are Levi Strauss & Co. and two charitable foundations endowed by the company’s proprietary family, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund and the Walter & Elise Haas Fund. BSR’s public face and the ethos shaping the organization distinctly bear the fingerprints of the fabled blue jeans company.

Dunn played an instrumental role in developing Levi’s trendsetting Global Sourcing Guidelines, a visionary document the company announced in 1992, which sets standards for behavior for the company’s outside business partners and addresses the question of doing business in countries where there are pervasive human rights violations. However, Dunn, exuding a rigid, priestly demeanor, declines to talk about his experiences at Levi Strauss. Even his general remarks on the challenges of corporate social responsibility are cautious. Confidential sources explain that Dunn harbors a certain degree of disdain for journalists, based on past experiences of feeling misunderstood or getting “burned” by the press. Indeed, listening to him speak, one can sense an inner conflict between his instincts to guard against intrusion and his intellectual commitment to the principle of transparency. “I read a speech by someone recently who said that a company needs to beware of any fourteen-year-old with a modem and an attitude. It is now possible for people outside the company to proliferate information that’s not accurate,” said Dunn, surrounded by the recyclable glass walls of BSR’s conference room. He adds, however, that a corporation’s interests “are better served by providing the public and various stakeholders with broad information about what they represent as a company. And what they contribute, because in the absence of that, they are characterized by others.”

Peter Liebhold, one of the curators of a groundbreaking exhibition on the history of sweatshop exploitation at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, said he encountered extraordinary resistance in gathering information from BSR and its members. “For our exhibition we wanted to show codes of conduct to demonstrate how industry is going forward to fight sweatshops. But it was almost impossible to get the codes,” he said. “BSR refused to give us the codes of conduct” it had collected, “and it was never clear why.”

Is transparency a principle that matters for corporations only in terms of a public relations agenda–preemptive damage control, as Dunn seems to say–and not necessarily in terms of public accountability? What about the importance of the free flow of information in a healthy democracy, which helps businesses make profits every bit as much as it helps museum curators collect knowledge to pass on to an informed citizenry? The cloak of corporate responsibility, without the practice of openness and transparency, is insidious in the extreme.

©2000 by Karl Schoenberger. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.