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The Latest Corporate Social Responsibility News: Mixed Messages What Obama Can Learn from Seventh Generation

Submitted by: CSRwire

Categories: Events, Corporate Social Responsibility

Posted: Jul 01, 2009 – 12:00 AM EST


Jul. 01 /CSRwire/ - June 30, 2009 -

by CSRwire Contributing Writers Francesca Rheannon and Bill Baue of Sea Change Media

The two-faced Roman god Janus governed beginnings and endings. As such, he faced both forward and backward. Since taking office, President Obama seems to be taking his cue from Janus on some issues concerning the environment, labor, and human rights, especially when linked to trade policy. During the campaign, he made a strong case to the public that climate change is real and we must tackle it if we are to avert planetary catastrophe. He also argued for easing barriers to union organizing and, as President, has pledged to close Guantanamo. That’s looking forward. He also appointed a strong energy team, including Stephen Chu and Cathy Zoi.

But recently Obama has taken some actions that threaten to move US policy backward. On Friday, June 26, while signing the $106 billion war spending bill into law, he looked backward to the previous administration by appending a “signing statement” objecting to sections in the bill that would compel his administration to exert pressure on the World Bank to boost labor and environmental standards. One section called on the President to encourage the World Bank to use metrics that “fairly represent the value of internationally recognized workers' rights.” It also would ask the bank to include the costs of greenhouse gas emissions in pricing out projects. Obama said he didn’t want his ability to conduct “foreign relations” hampered by the provisions.

Then on Sunday, June 28, Obama told a small group of White House reporters he opposes a provision in the Waxman-Markey climate bill that would slap trade penalties on countries refusing to accept limits on greenhouse gas emissions. The bill, called the American Clean Energy and Security Act, was passed last Friday by the House of Representatives and will be going to the Senate soon. Obama said the U.S. shouldn’t “send protectionist signals” in a time of recession.

The crucial importance of trade policy to human rights and the environment was brought into sharp relief in recent weeks by the fierce struggle of indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon to protect the forest from oil drilling and deforestation. Peruvian president Alan Garcia had sold the rights to log and drill in seventy per cent of the Peruvian Amazon to several international oil companies as part of legislation aimed at helping Peru comply with its Free Trade Agreement with the United States. Obama supports the free-trade agreement, as does Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

But Garcia’s legislation violated Peruvian law protecting indigenous rights and threatened massive environmental damage, due to the impact of drilling on the jungle and of deforestation on the climate. It also led to the June 5 massacre of more than a dozen Indians, when Garcia sent the military to quell a protest seeking to block the oil companies from getting in or out of the Amazon. But the protestors’ courage won the day: the Peruvian Congress voted overwhelmingly to repeal the legislation on June 18.

In contrast to Obama’s Janus approach, the company Seventh Generation, which manufactures household cleaning and hygiene supplies, has taken an unwavering approach to making sure its trade practices conform to high standards of social and environmental sustainability. Named this week as one of the “50 Best Small & Medium Companies to Work for in America,” Seventh Generation is committed to good labor practices; it also has come out strongly for the protection of rain forests by sourcing only sustainably harvested palm oil for its cleaning products. (Old growth rainforests are being clearcut to make way for unsustainable palm oil plantations.)

Seventh Generation sees no contradiction between making a profit and protecting people and the planet. What would it look like if President Obama’s trade policy followed the company’s example? Maybe then, instead of buying into the fallacy that human, labor and environmental rights are easily dispensed with in a time of recession, he would use his power and his bully pulpit to move them forward as an integral part of healthy economic policy.

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