Ecology

Profits Before People: 7 of the World’s Most Irresponsible Companies

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This article originally appeared on EarthFirst.com.

Money isn’t everything – or is it? To most corporations, making a profit is goal number one – but some of those companies take it way too far, sacrificing the health of the planet and its inhabitants for a bigger bank balance. Far too many corporations turn a blind eye to the consequences of their destructive, exploitative practices. The worst of them are committing atrocities that go beyond the realm of objectionable into criminal, dumping toxic chemicals without regard to public health and employing child labor.

What makes these seven companies extra evil is the fact that they’ve committed crimes that are BOTH environmentally and socially irresponsible.

Nestle

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Image via Blood in Your Coffee

More than 40% of the world’s chocolate comes from Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) in Africa, where tens of thousands of children are estimated to be working in dangerous conditions on cocoa farms. Nestle uses cocoa harvested by slave labor, and only when Senator Thomas Harkin (D-Iowa) led an investigation and introduced legislation that would require chocolate sold in the US to be labeled “slave-free” did the company act. Nestle promised that by July 2005 they would find a way to certify chocolate as not having been produced by any underage, indentured, trafficked or coerced labor, but since then, they have achieved very little.

Nestle’s bottled water business is also a major cause for concern. Nestle controls one-third of the US market and sells 70 different brand names of bottled water including Arrowhead, Deer Park, Perrier and Poland Spring. The company buys up pristine springs in some of the most beautiful natural spaces in America and builds huge factories on the sites, releasing pollution into the air and drawing enormous amounts of water out of the springs.

And, while the company claims an environmentally friendly ethic, saying it would never harm an aquifer, that’s exactly what they have done in places like Mecosta County, Michigan, damaging the watershed with excessive withdrawals, reaping huge profits and leaving the locals to deal with the consequences.

Pfizer

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Air and water pollution, disregard for safety standards and experimentation on Nigerian children: these are just a few of the environmental and human rights offenses perpetrated by the world’s largest pharmaceutical company. It’s hard to imagine how Pfizer officials can bear to look at themselves in the mirror every day after what they’ve done.

Pfizer is guilty of some of the most despicable price gouging in corporate history: it keeps its HIV/AIDS-related drugs out of the hands of the world’s poor, who need them the most. Pfizer has aggressively fought efforts to make these drugs more affordable, refusing to grant generic licenses for HIV/AIDS drugs to Brazil, South Africa and other countries in need of them.

In June 2008, Pfizer was forced to pay a $975,000 fine for violating the Clean Air Act at one of its manufacturing plants in Groton, Connecticut – a drop in the bucket for a company that makes upwards of $50 billion in profits every year. The Pfizer plant was emitting methanol, hydrogen chloride, methylene chloride, MTBE, hexane, toluene and other chemicals classified by the EPA as hazardous air pollutants. Pfizer had previously paid $430 million in 2004 to settle a large number of outstanding asbestos lawsuits from its acquisition of Quigley Company in 1968, which had sold contaminated insulation. It’s thanks to asbestos exposure lawyers that corrupt companies can’t get away with these types of acts.

Worst of all, the company that has little regard for safety standards – having released a number of drugs that ended up being pulled off the market for unforeseen complications – decided to test one of its drugs on poor, critically ill Nigerian children. Masking the trial as a “humanitarian mission”, Pfizer tested an experimental antibiotic called Trovan on meningitis-infected Nigerian children without their knowledge or the knowledge of their families. 11 children died, and others developed brain damage and crippling arthritis.

Wal-Mart

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Image via Brave New Films

“Save Money, Live Better”. That’s Wal-Mart’s slogan, but Wal-Mart workers themselves certainly wouldn’t say that they live better after beginning employment with the retail giant. A 2005 study found that Wal-Mart reduced the take-home pay of workers by an astounding $4.7 billion dollars annually, adding insult to injury considering that workers are often forced to work overtime for zero pay. Wal-Mart does everything it can to deny its workers basic rights, spending an enormous amount of time and money keeping unions out including $7,000 anti-union camera packages, $30,000 undercover spy vans, $100,000 24-hour anti-union hotlines and a $7,000,000 rapid response team with a corporate jet.

Furthermore, Wal-Mart pushes its suppliers to go lower and lower on their wholesale prices, until they’re so squeezed that they barely have two pennies to rub together at the end of the day. Thanks to its focus on low, low prices, the retailer has repeatedly turned a blind eye to child slave labor in its manufacturing facilities abroad, particularly in China and Bangladesh.

And, despite all of their claims about ‘going green’, Wal-Mart has broken one environmental law after the other. Wal-Mart became the first company to be fined for violating new standards for stormwater runoff in 2001, and had to pay $5.5 million. In 2004, the company faced fines for violations in 9 states. That same year, it agreed to pay $400,000 to the government to settle claims that Sam’s Club had violated air pollution regulations in 11 states.

Last year, the company admitted as much – but that hasn’t stopped them from continuing the PR effort. Former CEO Lee Scott admitted of the company’s greenwashing efforts, “It has been positive from a PR standpoint, but one of the things we learned is that we are not sophisticated enough to spin a story — ultimately, we’d get hammered. We are not out saying we’re a green company. We are not green. We have an extraordinary distance to go.”

ExxonMobil

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Image via Greenpeace

The Exxon-Valdez oil spill is by far ExxonMobil’s most well-known environmental offense, but it’s certainly not the only one. The oil giant was ranked sixth on the Toxic 100 list of US corporate air polluters, and has been accused by Greenpeace of sabotaging efforts to deal with climate change, manipulating peer-reviewed studies and misleading the public with junk science. Indeed, though they have since cut off funding, ExxonMobil once financially supported a number of global warming denial organizations.

Though ExxonMobil trumpeted its investment in renewable energy sources in a series of advertisements over the past few years, the fact is that the company has invested just $300 million in renewable energy sources over the next 10 years compared to the $47 billion they spent between 2003 and 2006 alone on dirty energy sources like oil and gas.

In 2001, ExxonMobil was the target of a lawsuit by a human rights group that accused the company of actively abetting human rights abuses including torture, rape and killings in Indonesia. The suit alleged that ExxonMobil had hired a local army to protect its natural gas fields in the Aceh province, providing them with equipment to dig mass graves as well as building interrogation and torture centers. The company denied all of the charges, but a motion it filed to have the case dismissed was denied in 2006. The case is still pending.

Chevron

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Image via Treehugger

Chevron has launched a huge multimedia advertising blitz about its supposed commitment to smart energy use and renewable energy sources – all while destroying pristine forests in places like Ecuador and Bangladesh, and causing myriad health problems right here in the U.S. thanks to the toxic waste at its refineries.

Texaco (which has since been taken over by Chevron) caused a toxic “Rainforest Chernobyl” in Ecuador from 1964 to 1992, cutting through the Amazon in search of oil and leaving behind dead rivers, polluted air, scarred forests and over 600 unlined oil pits. They also dumped 18 billion gallons of toxic production water into the rivers where locals bathe. Living in close proximity to the oil fields has resulted in health effects ranging from high miscarriage rates to cancer.

In Richmond, California, toxic pollutants from Chevron’s refinery in the city have infiltrated people’s homes. Air samples from inside and outside Richmond homes in 2006 were found to contain particulate matter known to come from oil refining that exceeded California’s air quality standards. Unsurprisingly, local residents are feeling the effects in the form of lupus, cancer, athsma and a number of other health problems.

Dow Chemical

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Image via Greenpeace

Dow Chemical (along with Monsanto) will never escape the shadow of Agent Orange, the chemical used by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War during the ‘Herbicidal Warfare’ program, which lead to 400,000 deaths and disabilities and 500,000 children born with birth defects. But even with this evil legacy – and that of Napalm, which it also produced – Dow is not contrite. This corporation continues to pollute the earth without apology.

Two rivers downstream of Dow’s plant in Midland, Michigan are polluted with chlorinated furans and dioxins from the company’s past operations. Despite the fact that these chemicals are linked to cancer and other health issues, Dow maintains that the contamination is not a public health threat and has been fighting with the EPA over cleanup for years. Many people in the area aren’t even aware of the extent of the dioxin contamination, and Dow has refused to put up warning signs. Just last weekend, Dow Chemical sponsored a fishing event in a waterway it polluted with dioxin, never even acknowledging the contamination and its possible effects.

Furthermore, following the purchase of Union Carbide – the company responsible for the Bhopal gas disaster which left nearly 20,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands disabled – Dow has refused to take responsibility for the health and environmental effects of the incident.

Monsanto

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Image via Flickr user skasuga

Despite the inroads that Dow Chemical has been making lately on the evil corporation front, Monsanto still reigns supreme. It’s hard to overstate just how socially and environmentally irresponsible this company really is. Monsanto has manufactured herbicides (which, during manufacturing, create dioxin as a by-product), Agent Orange, plastics, fuel additives, saccharin, industrial fluids, fertilizers, pesticides and anti-freeze in the past. Some years ago they chose to focus on ‘life sciences’ and are now the world’s largest seed company. They’re also the creators of Recombitant Bovine Growth Hormone (rGBH) and the world’s largest producer of genetically modified food.

Monsanto is responsible for more than 50 Superfund sites including Anniston, Alabama, one of America’s worst man-made environmental disasters. For over 40 years, Monsanto routinely dumped toxic waste into West Anniston Creek while producing now-banned industrial coolants called PCBs. They also dumped millions of pounds of PCBs into open-pit landfills – and proceeded to spend decades covering it up even after confirming that fish submerged in the creek turned belly-up within seconds.

Monsanto knew exactly how dangerous the PCBs were, but chose to keep it secret, altering documents and forcing changes to study results to keep the secret. Though they were forced to pay $700 million in fines in 2003, they have not apologized or taken responsibility.

On top of that, after polluting waterways all over the world, Monsanto proceeded to buy up said waterways, filter the water and sell it back to the public, making a double profit.

Among Monsanto’s worst acts is its attempt to completely monopolize the world’s seed supply. The company has spent over $8 billion in recent years buying up seed companies – including organic seed companies – and making it illegal for farmers to retain the seeds from their crop for the following year’s planting. That means farmers are forced to pay Monsanto for new seeds, again and again. Many of Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds produce plants that are reportedly dependent upon Monsanto herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers.

The people paying the biggest price for Monsanto’s greed are Indian farmers. Every day, at least three of them commit suicide by hanging themselves, drowning themselves in rivers or drinking Monsanto pesticides because they’ve hit rock bottom in desperation, hopelessness and debt. The death toll stands at thousands, with some estimates at over 16,000. The farmers had been promised unprecedented harvests and income if they switched to genetically modified Monsanto seeds in what was basically one big experiment on unwitting subjects. When the crops failed, the farmers felt they had no way out, and they certainly didn’t have money to buy more seeds.

Now, it’s been reported that Monsanto has found a way to profit from its own misdeeds once again. In the Southeast, a “superweed” known as Palmer amaranth pigweed is taking over soybean and cotton fields, often leaving them totally unfit for future cultivation. This particular strain of weed was created thanks to overuse of Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide and the attendant use of its patented Roundup-resistant GMOs. So, what will it take to wipe out this superweed? You guessed it – more Monsanto herbicides.

Stephanie Rogers is a fashion- and beauty-obsessed freelance writer with an abiding love for kale and organic wine, living in Asheville, North Carolina.