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.
The Bhopal disaster and its aftermath: a review Free access