Seattle Diary: Friday, Nov. 26, 1999. I finish off the speech I’m giving at the Word Trade Organization (WTO) protest meeting on the British Airways flight from Heathrow to Seattle. A usually dull journey is invigorating because the flight is an extraordinary experience in itself: Everyone is on the way to do battle in Seattle. The plane is packed with Australian activists, anti-logging campaigners, War on Want members, representatives of small farmers in Africa. It is the NGOs in force and they alone will be standing up for the billions of unrepresented people and who will be putting their case to the representatives of the most powerful corporations in the world.
As we cross the Atlantic, I get more and more committed to the cause with every time zone we pass. I’m booked as a speaker at a two-day Teach-In organized by the International Forum on Globalization, but I also want to stuff my brain with information, tape the words of every speaker, pick up every leaflet and march with every protester. The unapproved draft agenda for the WTO meeting contains provisions which would force the Europeans to let in genetically modified organisms, which, once released, can never be put back. It would also mean that corporations would have to patent life forms and privatize water supplies, so that Indian farmers would have to pay to use the water they have used for generations, and to use the seeds their ancestors may well have developed.
I was already concerned about the impact of the new global economy on the world, and the role played by the WTO, but all that thinking, writing and discussion on the flight has fired me up. I intend to be sleepless in Seattle!
One captain of industry once went on the record to describe me as “frenetic and self-righteous.” The “self-righteous” label might have said more about him than about me, but there’s a touch of truth in the “frenetic” — because I am a firm believer that entrepreneurs have a nomadic soul. It helps them understand the changing environment — for modern life as well as business — and it confronts them with the truth, as it has confronted me. Some journeys are more about business, but some are just for the truth, in countries we generally regard as rich as well as those we regard as poor. Journeys, for me, have always provided insight.
Not long ago I spent two weeks crossing the great American divide, travelling through the so-called “Black Belt” of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia for my first look at extreme poverty in the USA, the richest country of all. I found a guide in Jacob Holdt, a Danish “vagabond” photographer, who has spent the last 30 years roaming America, photographing rural black communities. It was my first encounter with real poverty in any western country. To be poor is hard, but to be poor in America, in a land of such wealth, can be intolerable. I saw communities that had been excluded from society for generations. They were sinking deeper and deeper into poverty and hopelessness, under the weight of institutionalized racism. The longer I traveled with Jacob, the more I started to believe that there was no more hope for these people. The whole journey reminded me of an installation by Jenny Holzer, the artist, which read: “Go where people sleep and see if they’re safe.”
I had never met Jacob before the trip. I was scheduled to give a talk in New Orleans and he was making the journey to meet the people he had spent time with over the past 30 years. Together we visited shacks and prison communities in the forgotten underbelly of America. When we first met, the first thing I wanted to do was hand him a bottle of our Brazil Nut Hair Conditioner — his hair was as rough as straw and he had a long plaited beard which he rolled up when he went into cities. I quickly learned Jacob’s personality was determinately passive. If ever he was in adversarial situations, he would gently talk his way out of things. Once, when every inch of our truck was filled with wayfarers, itinerants and hitchhikers who would normally strike fear in any of us — Jacob never passed anyone on the highway — I studied how softly he spoke and how intently he listened. In our society, gentleness is often viewed as ridiculous or insincere: Jacob showed me that nothing is as powerful as gentleness or as persuasive as treating a person with respect and kindness. This is how he has survived the hazards of the life he has spent gathering the stories of the marginalized and powerless.
What I saw while traveling with Jacob astounded me. The hope for change, and the optimism that I felt during the 1960s when our generation campaigned for racial equality had disappeared. The longer I journeyed with him, the more I started to fear there was no more hope. I also saw the effects of the overwhelming power of television, and how it acts just like a pacifier to the mind. A pale blue light flickered in the broken down shacks 24 hours a day. It seemed that we had all become part of a media culture, designed to perpetuate the myth that material wealth defines self-value and self-worth.
While we travelled in the truck, Jacob and I talked long and hard about racism. I used to be convinced that color wasn’t important in my relationships, but still I constantly check myself: I think racial prejudice is like a hair across your cheek — you can’t see it in your behavior, you can’t find it, you just keep brushing against it.
For the last 15 years I have experience how wealth can make you insensitive to the human condition and from that time on I decided that I’d do anything and everything to not allow this insensitivity to happen to me. The journey with Jacob provided me with yet another antidote to comfort and complacency. It helped illuminate the current state of human affairs.
This hopelessness and poverty in the midst of wealth is a stark reminder that the “economic problem” — as John Maynard Keynes put it — is not solved. We have a record boom in the US economy, we have stock markets soaring over the 10,000-point barrier, but we have this looming human catastrophe as well. And poverty drives the other crises. It drives desperate people to over-exploit their resources, or allow them to be over-exploited. It drives them into drug dealing or terrorism. And it also drives them into the waiting arms of rich countries as military, economic or political collaborators who perpetuate the poverty of the majority world. We’ve institutionalized it. I sometimes wonder why we’re not more outraged by the fact that three billion people live on less than $2 a day, while the wealthy have stashed away $8 trillion dollars in tax havens. They certainly don’t seem to be picking up the tab on world poverty. Despite the astonishing wealth of the so-called “long boom,” a fifth of the human race is still living in absolute poverty without access to proper food or clean water.
The rise of the NGOs
This is the reality of the modern world, but it has spawned the beginning of a much more hopeful trend, and it’s one that absolutely thrills me. I knew the business environment had changed, but until my flight to Seattle, I hadn’t understood just how much the rise of the NGOs has changed the environment for corporate life. All those focus groups, futurists and pollsters the corporations employ failed to predict the extraordinary rise to influence of the NGOs — yet their emergence could well change everything. There are now at least 100,000 NGOs working on green issues alone all over the world. Some of them are persecuted and embattled; some are increasingly powerful. One question from Greenpeace by fax to a food manufacturer in 1999 was enough for them to take GM ingredients out of baby food. It was Indonesian NGOs that helped bring down the dictator President Suharto.
The role of NGOs is to be the beneficial aspect of globalization. Their vigilance around the world makes the great abuses which humanity once brushed aside visible for all to see. Together, they now represent billions of people — often the least powerful and the people whose voices are heard the least — determined that trade should be more equitable, fair and just. The NGOs face the suspicion of the left because they are too close to the corporate world, and the suspicion of the right because they threaten to change the way business is carried out. But, taken together with the terrifying rise in poverty, they represent an entirely new climate for business.
NGOs provided the only bridge between the different sides in Seattle. They were the only ones who could talk to everyone, to politicians, corporations, campaigners and protestors alike. It was a small example of how they have been able to get people to communicate, and a reminder of some of the most creative partnerships that NGOs are now creating. All over the world we can see these emerging: unusual alliances between human rights groups and education institutions, alternative trade associations, progressive consumer groups, and often they are in partnership with business too. The trouble is that much of the corporate world still fails to recognize their significance, or what they represent, or the catastrophe of poverty.
Open up a typical management book and you will find it hard to avoid words like leadership, team-building, culture or customer service. But you’ll be lucky if you find words like community, economic poverty, social justice, ethics, love, care or spirituality — a word that is truly kept in the closet! Never mind a MBA curriculum that fails to include subjects such as social and ethical accounting, human rights or gender perspectives in the workplace and so just may be the rise of the NGOs will be pivotal in arranging this. There is a long way to go and in the meantime, we have to face up to some of the following problems.
If you look at the way some business is behaving with this newfound power in many corners of the world — the places most business leaders never travel — you can see them alienating humanity in so many ways. I have seen, and still see, corporate crimes in abundance. The globe is quickly becoming a playground for those who can move capital and projects quickly from place to place. When business can roam from country to country with few restrictions in its search for the lowest wages, the loosest environmental regulations, the most docile and desperate workers, the destruction of livelihoods, cultures and environments can be enormous.
Industry after industry seems to remain perfectly happy to use sweatshops. From Europe to the US to Taiwan to Malaysia, each country is just another pit stop in the race to an ever-improved bottom line. The new frontier is Asia, where wages and environmental standards are still lower and human rights abuses are suppressed in an even more sordid way. The new nomadic capital never sets down roots, never builds communities. It leaves behind toxic wastes, embittered workers and indigenous communities driven out of existence.
I spend much of every year traveling around the world, talking to the victims of globalization, people like small farmers in the US — scores of whom go out of business every week. Half a century ago there were a million black farmers in the US; now there are 1,800. Globalization means that subsidies go to the big farms, while the small family farms — the heart of so many small town communities — go to the wall. I have also visited dark, cramped factories where people work for a pittance for 12 hours a day without a day off. “We are not allowed to talk to each other or go to the bathroom,” one Asian worker in a garment factory told me. This wasn’t in Seoul or Sao Paulo: it was in San Francisco.
One of the key problems of the business world is that greed has become so culturally acceptable that it’s part of the system. In 1999, 300 managers and staff at Jupiter Asset Management, which looks after £2 billion in investors money and creates nothing but more money, shared between them £500 million in bonuses. Company founder John Duffield picked up £100 million. In US business today an estimated $17 trillion resides in the hands of investment managers, whose only values are in monetary terms — untaxed, hugely insensitive to any social justice or community concern. When Goldman Sachs floated in the same year, after 130 years as a private partnership, the 220 partners each received shares worth around £30 million. CEO Henry Paulson got shares worth £191 million while departing co-chairman Jon Corzine left with a holding of £206 million.
Or take the example of Walt Disney, chosen by the US corporate watchdog magazine Multinational Monitor as one of the ten worst corporations of 1996, because of its refusal to pay decent wages to contract workers in Thailand, Haiti and even in the US. Haitian contractors producing children’s clothing under licence to Disney were paying workers 28 cents an hour, or about 7 cents for every garment they make. In other factories producing Disney clothing, workers earn as little as $1 a day — 12 cents an hour. The workers’ call for a living wage — 58 cents an hour — fell on deaf ears at Disney. To interfere would be “an inappropriate use of our authority,” said a Disney spokesperson. It would take one Haitian worker producing Disney clothes and dolls 166 years to earn as much as Disney president Michael Eisner earns in one day. Eisner isn’t even one of the seven richest men in the world, whose pooled wealth would — it is said — be sufficient to eliminate global poverty.
There is a direct link between this kind of greed, once it becomes widespread in society, to some of the worst social shocks of the day — like the children who murder each other just to get their Nike trainers. Greed without legal and moral constraint can destroy everything worthwhile in life. Wealth can corrode humanity and alienate the wealthy from the human condition.
This is not just a theoretical issue for me, after all. The Body Shop has been successful enough for me to be wealthy compared to the vast majority of the world — though we have resisted the kind of corporate greed I’ve just described. I know it would be all too easy for me to sink into the seductive comfort of just being a wealthy businesswoman. It would be an easy life, but without fighting for anything there’s also a hint of death about it, so I do what I can to keep striving, travelling and fighting. What I see around me also helps keep me alive, and as I have told my children — when I die every penny I’ve ever earned will be given away to human and civil rights activists.
“When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino,” warned Keynes, “the job is likely to be ill-done.” In our generation, the casino analogy has also been used by the development economist Susan George as a way of describing how the financial system can be mendacious to a majority of the world’s population. It is a world economic casino overseen and policed by no-one, with central bankers acting as croupiers. Crowded about the tables are players using commodities, currencies and derivatives as chips. Outside, politicians act as greeters, like retired prizefighters, yelling “Great to see you!” and bidding us all inside.
But this is no utopia. After two centuries or more of economic growth, the benefits are still only felt by a minority of the world. And while those who operate the casino reap the spoils, the goods for sale in the global economy are usually produced not by the world’s victors, but its victims. Not by a charming band of little people singing “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go,” but by desperately poor people, often children, engaged in forced and bonded labor, and struggling in sweatshops. Not in the democracies promised by the political economists, but in brutal dictatorships. Nor to gain the promised rising standards of living, but at the cost of poisoned air, water and land and increasingly unequal wealth.