A Skewed Morality – Dow Chemicals at London 2012

US-based Dow Chemical Company (Dow) are a major sponsor of London 2012, and as part of their sponsorship will manufacture a £7,000,000 wrap that will engulf the Olympic Stadium for the duration of the games. Dow agreed to cover the cost as part of their ‘top tier’ Olympic sponsorship deal after governmental funding was cut. Dow’s involvement in the Olympic Games has caused a furore amongst many due to their association with a major industrial accident in Bhopal, India, in 1984. Indian chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan called for a boycott of the games by Indian athletes, though a recent report suggests this is unlikely. Protests and calls for the International Olympic Committee to cut all ties with Dow have been continuous since the announcement, and Meredith Alexander a member of the Commission for a Sustainable London board quit her role live on Newsnight.

Dow are arguably the hereditary owners of responsibility for what is regarded by many as the greatest industrial disaster in history, after a take over Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) in 2001; UCC were part owners of the company that owned and operated the industrial plant in Bhopal at the time of a lethal gas leak. The Bhopal disaster resulted in the region of 20,000 deaths (a conservative estimate by some accounts, an over-estimate by others) as a result of a leak of tens of tons of poison gas (a major component of which was methyl isocyanate). The long-term effects of this disaster are still very much debated, though it is without question that the people of Bhopal still live in its shadow.

At the time of the disaster the Bhopal plant was owned and run by UCIL, an  Indian company of which UCC owned just over 50%. Dow bought UCC  in 2001 after they had sold both their shares in UCIL and the plant itself, and more than ten years after the Indian Supreme Court confirmed settlement, and closed the legal proceedings associated with the liability of Union Carbide Company. Several attempts to re-open proceedings since Dow purchased UCC have failed, and Dow refuse to accept liability for the accident. I can not comment on the settlements legal validity, or whether it was conducted in an appropriate manner – and it is impossible to find an objective analysis of such an emotive topic – but it is reasonable for Dow to refute liability for an event that occurred prior to ownership, when the consequential legal investigation had been settled. Had Dow bought the company prior to settlement they should have inherited the liability as you would debt, but this was not the case.

The debate about Dow’s involvement in the Olympic Games will continue until London 2012 is over, and the issue will never be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, so a continued discussion is somewhat pointless. In contrast, the moral standpoint of those involved in the protests, including Meredith Alexander, is an interesting point to consider. Alexander’s desire to see

that real justice is achieved for the victims and the families of those who died.”

is admirable and shows a great deal of empathy for those that were affected by something that could now easily be forgotten nearly 30 years later. What is challenging to understand though, is why Alexander (and others in less limelight) feels that Dow are more morally reprehensible than any of the other major Olympic sponsors and associates who are reportedly involved with ongoing  human rights abuses or illegal work practices; especially considering Dow’s involvement is purely due to the acquisition of UCC.

For the Observer, Gethin Chamberlain recently reported on the abuse of staff in Bangladesh for those supplying clothing for Puma, Adidas, and Nike. Following an investigation by War on Want entitled ‘A race to the bottom’, he reported exploitation of staff with respect to wages and hours, instances of physical abuse reported for all three clothing manufactures, and sexual abuse in the case of Adidas and Nike. And what about other major sponsors? The reportedly questionable ethical backgrounds of Coca-Cola and McDonalds; the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of which BP were partly responsible; or even EDF’s fine for spying on Greenpeace. Surely these all require at least a footnote from Alexander?

I have a lot of respect for Alexander taking a stand for what she believed in, but why she thinks Dow are particularly worthy of exclusion from their roles as sponsors of the Olympic games I do not understand. Maybe she believes – though I would argue against – that Dow’s behaviour is the most abhorrent of all the sponsors. Is it that chemical companies are still perceived as particularly evil, and therefore a valid (easy) target? Or, maybe it is simply that people do not perceive themselves as ‘users’ of chemicals, and therefore they do not feel they are faced with the same moral conflict they would be when criticising a brand that is in their fridge at home, on their feet, or fueling their car to the nearest drive through. I think it is easy to criticise when you do not consider yourself part of the problem, but rest assured, as a modern consumer I can just about guarantee we all own a little bit something produced by Dow.

Why I resigned over Bhopal – Meredith Alexander

Bhopal Information Center

Dow Corporate Responsibility – Bhopal

25th Anniversary of Bhopal – Photo Gallery 

London 2012: Dow Chemical deal is fine by me, says David Cameron

The Bhopal disaster and its aftermath: a review Free access

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5 thoughts on “A Skewed Morality – Dow Chemicals at London 2012

  1. A thoughtful piece Karl, but due to the ubiquity of Dow’s pr it’s missing some essential background. A good place to start is here: http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/olympics/olympic-sponsorship-row-fuelled-by-bhopal-revelations-6804793.html

    The story illuminates how Union Carbide was still on-the-lam from charges of 2nd degree murder when it merged with Dow, and that Dow has taken great pains to ensure that its subsidiary remains outside the jurisdiction of India’s courts, thus shielding the accused and obstructing justice. The 2nd degree murder case involves 25,000 deaths!

    Another suit concerning the wholly separate issue of environmental contamination had also been underway for 15 months at the time of the Carbide-Dow merger. Despite an abundance of evidence that Carbide USA designed, installed and oversaw the waste disposal systems are causing the contamination in Bhopal, Dow again uses jurisdictional arguments to prevent any adjudication of responsibility. Consequently, 40,000 people are currently being poisoned by drinking water polluted with significant quantities of volatile organic chemicals originating from Carbide’s abandoned pesticides factory. This mass, ongoing poisoning is entirely preventable and, as the polluter, Carbide should pay to stop it. Except that Carbide doesn’t exist in any meaningful way any more: it’s owned, managed, directed and controlled by Dow. If Carbide pays a suit, the money leaves from Dow’s consolidated account. The conclusion, therefore, is that Dow is allowing the poisoning to continue.

    Indian courts have twice found Union Carbide – the parent, which retained proprietary ownership of the technology installed in Bhopal and which therefore designed it and oversaw operational, maintenance and safety issues with the technology – prima facie responsible for the gas disaster. That’s because, in addition to controlling the failed technology, Carbide also followed a policy of total management control of its overseas subsidiaries. To realise this policy in India with UCIL, Carbide needed to retain a majority share of equity. To maintain a majority equity, Carbide enforced four different stages of cost-cutting at the design, build, operation and maintenance phases of the Bhopal factory. Despite the Indian court’s judgements, based upon this background, they have been unable to enforce their own rulings due to the inherent difficulties in pursuing multinational corporations across legal jurisdictions.

    Dow has shown itself no less adept at exploiting these inherent difficulties to prevent criminal and environmental justice for over half a million afflicted souls, and that’s before we even get to the issue of civil compensation upon which Dow sets such stall. The total compensation given to each of the 570,000 suffering permanent residual injury due to exposure to MIC gas is £630 per person. The self evident injustice of this amount is why the Indian government itself is currently challenging the 1989 settlement before its Supreme Court. Dow, summoned due to successor liability principles in law, once again denies that Indian courts have any jurisdiction over it.

    These are just some of the reasons why there is perceived to be a vast morality vacuum in Dow Chemical’s approach to Bhopal, and why it therefore represents the antithesis of the high principles enshrined within the Olympic Charter.

  2. Thanks for the information Tim. You are right about it being difficult to sort through the PR and find the truth – though this obviously works both ways. In the couple of hours spent researching (unfortunately not being paid limits my research time) I couldn’t honestly say that I could give an opinion on Dow’s responsibility in the Bhopal disaster – there is so much contradictory information; what I was really getting at is the hypocrisy in calling for the removal of Dow as a sponsor and not questioning the integrity of the other more ‘user friendly’ companies.

    • Thanks for your reply, Karl. I’ve been researching Bhopal since before Dow’s merger with UCC was conceived – and am also married to a Bhopal survivor – so naturally have a particular focus on Bhopal related iniquities. Meredith Alexander works professionally upon a number of different campaign issues and therefore possesses a much broader perspective. Just today she’s chairing a campaign launched to bring attention to three of the worst Olympic sponsors.

      As I understand it, Meredith took the decision to resign specifically over Dow not only because she considered it to be a most egregious example of corporate disregard for human rights, but also because she felt the Commission she sat upon misrepresented the facts behind the case when asked – by Tessa Jowell, MP – to examine Dow’s sponsorship deal with LOCOG. Meredith was able to question the Commissions’s stance due to her insight into the issue of “successor liability”, the legal doctrine which ensures that social, economic, environmental and criminal liabilities do not just evaporate when business entities change ownership. She tried to effect a change in the Commission’s public policy from within, but felt that her efforts were sidelined, leaving her no choice but to resign.

      These aspects of the story speak of integrity, not hypocrisy, which in my opinion in this case should be reserved for those consciously dirtying their hands in greenwashing disreputable companies whilst making grandiose claims about ‘sustainability’. You’re right that Dow put itself in the crosshairs of the Bhopal campaign by merging with UCC, but there is plenty else in its recent history to condemn it. These are purported to be the most sustainable Olympics, but Dow is by its own admittance the largest industrial consumer of fossil fuels on the planet. A good list of its many skeletons can be found here: http://old.studentsforbhopal.org/DirtyDow.htm

  3. These giant chemical company’s don’t give a damn about the environment or anything else, Corruption has made them successful.

  4. you provide us very use full article about the A Skewed Morality – Dow Chemicals at London 2012 i have not foud this information but you provided you can found more information about chemical and their relation ship and lots of formulas

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