Updated: Nov 16, 2021
By Karel JOOS, Partner
By order of the Flemish environment minister Zuhal Demir, the production lines that emit PFAS were recently shut down at the 3M chemical plant in the port of Antwerp. The company has a long-standing reputational problem, much of it of its own making, and the public are happy to see them as the fall guy. 3M’s predicament is not particular to that company and has much to do with the inherently negative image of corporations. It fails to reflect, however, their role as what I describe as “morally ambiguous heroes”.
Today, companies are, at best, viewed by the public with passive indifference: dull, predictable and distant. From a rational point of view this is unjustified. Commercial companies alone create the added value from which prosperity can flow. Metaphors such as the backbone and life blood of our economy are rooted in truth, yet for many the relevance and necessity of businesses remains ambiguous and misunderstood. It is true that some companies have gone rogue. They willfully cheat to make a fat profit only to disappear with the winter sun or minimize the damage if they are unmasked. Other companies – equally rare – are idealists and few of them belong to the profit sector. Private companies that aspire to resemble say, Ethan Hunt, the hero who saves the world time and again in 'Mission: Impossible', are treated with scepticism.
The morally ambiguous hero, on the other hand, is a better moniker for many companies. Like human beings, the majority of them are neither villain nor benefactor. It is a delicate balance but its appeal is great because the audience is curious about the motives of the antihero. The viewers and the readers want to understand him to better understand themselves. They realize that good and evil also wage war within their own souls. This makes them wonder what they would do in certain situations. In a well-known Flemish comic book series, 'The Dark Ally' recounts the story of the Red Knight, the hero in his battle against the fiendish Count Krodax, who receives help from Nocturno, a knight as black as he is impressive, who later turns out to be the servant of Bahaal, Prince of Darkness. Nocturno is a personification of the temptation to which good people sometimes succumb to fulfill their own desires and ambitions. It ultimately leaves the reader questioning…: “What are we willing to sacrifice to resist the lure of the dark ally?” Am I prepared to eschew a telephone, a T-shirt, a non-stick pan, a fossil fuel car, or shampoo with those little plastic balls, a broiler chicken, chocolate spread, an e-commerce account?
For the public to perceive companies as morally ambiguous characters and so feel a stronger and more positive connection with them, companies must first be honest about their motives and stop spouting nonsense like 'we have a passion for xyz'. They should acknowledge that they want to make a profit, preferably as much as possible, but not at all costs. Statements such as 'we are forced by the shareholders' or 'we operate in a competitive market' ring hollow as justifications. Anyhow, there is no right answer to “how much” profit is morally acceptable. Companies also must dare to show that they are fallible, like humans, if their personification is to be convincing and relatable. Too often companies are perceived as inanimate machines - yet robots are only interesting in sci-fi movies.
If corporate representatives fail to explain their motives, the majority of their audience will continue be suspicious of them, judge them as a necessary evil and treat them accordingly. Expecting social admiration or thunderous applause is a vain hope. Endorsement, appreciation and respect are within reach but it is the public who will be the ultimate arbiter.