Globalization appears to be the buzzword of our times. The literature on the subject must be generating enough books to threaten large tracts of the world’s forests. A prominent contribution to that body of writing is Naomi Klein’s No Logo. In her lengthy and passionate polemic on the power of global corporations, Klein recognizes that the visibility of the brand exacerbates public discontent with companies’ failures, but fails to see that in this visibility lies the beginning of a solution.
In the introduction to her book, Klein recalls an earlier age of inner-city garment production in her native Toronto when the workforce largely consisted of immigrants from Eastern Europe. She conveys a certain nostalgia for that system of production and the city it helped to create. By contrast she is scathing in her condemnation of contemporary garment production, and the conditions for its workers in developing countries. For causing these and many other ills she has been able to identify the globalization villain – corporations and the brands which give them identity.
It is Klein’s contention ‘that corporations have grown so big that they have superseded government. That, unlike governments, they are accountable only to their shareholders; that we lack the mechanisms to make them answer to a broader public.’
In her nostalgia for a ‘better’ past, and her contention that corporations enjoy unfettered power, she reveals the essential flaws in her argument. The reality is that technology makes globalization possible, and competition makes it inevitable. Change is not the issue. The issue is how to manage change in a way that reflects and respects contemporary values. The anti-globalization activists are right to engage those they see as the drivers and main beneficiaries of the process – business and government. However, I’m not sure that it makes much sense to demonize the very institutions best placed to effectively manage the change process.
Naomi Klein’s main targets are the major corporations, but her core contention that they are ‘accountable only to their shareholders’ is plainly wrong. The logos and brands which are the focus of her attack are, as she herself acknowledges, companies’ way of holding up a sign that says ‘Look at me. Judge me.’ It is the visibility of the brand that makes companies so sensitive to public, and therefore consumer, opinion. Companies devote most of their energies to making their brands and products attractive to the public. They are, or should be, fully aware of the consequences of offending the public, and there is no doubt that the public is offended by issues which have often been associated with periods of dramatic change – child labour, unsafe and unhealthy working conditions, wanton abuse of the environment.
It is true, as Klein points out, that companies bring their own values, which may be very different to the local culture. Workers want to retain the right to organize and campaign for the terms and conditions that are right for them. They should not have to rely on a ‘code of conduct’ drawn up by a foreign-owned company, into which they had no input, to secure decent working conditions. However, in the absence of viable alternatives, companies which understand their need to meet the community’s expectations of them will fall back on self-generated solutions such as codes of conduct.
Real economic opportunities are being created for people who previously had no such opportunities. Standards of living in developing countries are much lower than in Western Europe and North America, and they probably aren’t rising as fast as many would like, but the factories from which corporations’ source their products are often focal points for development and relative prosperity.
It cannot be denied that the world economy distributes wealth very unevenly. Western corporations and Western consumers are, in the main, among the ‘haves’, while much of the developing world is peopled by ‘have nots’. If we want to change this current reality, many people and organizations will need to come together in common cause, but they must first make an effort to understand the motivations and limitations of all those who need to play a part.
My contention is that while the efforts of major corporations may be flawed, they do represent a genuine attempt to manage the economy in a way that meets society’s expectations of them. While the companies would acknowledge that they have often made mistakes, most are trying hard to rectify those while gaining a better understanding of the standards they need to achieve.
It is complex and it is difficult. That is something Naomi Klein will have discovered when she ensured that the paper and ink used to print her book were manufactured in ways which minimized environmental damage. And when she made sure that the employees of the distributors and booksellers who handle her book all enjoy fair wages and working conditions. Whether she likes it or not, and I imagine she does, she has written a best-selling book which has become a small part of the globalized economy.
Alan Christie is Director of Community Affairs, Levi Strauss Europe. He can be contacted by email at AChristie@LEVI.com
No logo, no solution
Naomi Klein Flamingo. £14.99