Corporate Environmentalism

In the year 2000, transnational corporate enterprise reigns supreme around the globe as the world's most effective model for organizing productive forces as well as its most powerful means of managing relations of production. While this fact is never forgotten, most managers in the corporate capitalist economy still seek to legitimize their authority--even now after victories in the Cold War--among many clienteles around the world in measures of how fully, broadly or deeply they satisfy wants and needs felt by consumers. In turn, with the defeat or cooptation of most militant labor groups during the twentieth century, one of the few remaining bases of effective anti-systemic resistance to globalized corporate capitalism is environmentalism. Yet, to gain a broad audience or tap an effective constituency, the leaders of many environment movements, like transnational corporate managers, are forced increasingly to pitch their messages in consumerist terms to win widespread popular support.

By struggling to define the ultimate goals of Nature's economic and social uses, corporate capitalism and organized environmentalism constantly tussle over the conditions of consumption, struggling how to best manage the ends and means of global markets. Many large companies argue that intensive natural resource development can be done sustainably by them, but most ecological movements fear such corporate plans actually are an elaborate program to exhaust what is left of Nature.1 Of course, not all businesses are mindless polluters, and not all environmentalists are anti-business. By the same token, not all environmental movement are consumerist, and not all consumption is ecological, but there are many cross-cutting influences here that these linkages merit investigation. These connections are especially interesting in regard a handful of big firms that have adopted what their managers believe to be ecological mentalities as part of their companies' corporate rationality.2 Because of their ubiquity as a key consumer good, automobiles have been at the center of many struggles over what should be consumed by whom, how much and where. Automobile producers fought ecological reforms tooth and nail for decades, but the energy crisis of the 1970s forced most of them think differently about their products and production processes.

One of the most different approaches to consumption has been to reimagine the supply chains of commercial firms as organic ecologies, rather than machinic logistics. As Frosch asks, "let us consider, industry, indeed, the whole of humanity and nature, as a system of temporary stocks and flows of material and energy."3 Ultimately, this school of thought makes a radical claim: if industrial ecology can begin to dominate corporate production strategies, then ultimately all business decisions would be tied to "a framework for thinking about materials and their flows in the context of industrial waste, about the balancing of costs and environmental impacts in possible future states of industry, and about a method of policy examination."4

Using these methods, big business would need to recalibrate their corporate activities to suit new criteria for managerial success. As Frosch asserts, they would need to monitor their success or failures as industrial ecosystems with surveillance technologies grounded upon, statistical mechanics, which has developed very successfully to study systems consisting of a large number of interacting elements--particularly systems in which the large number of elements and possible interactions present an otherwise almost insuperable challenge to understanding the behavior of the whole system.5

In many ways, these "better ideas" about corporate behavior recast private firms as just one system in a system of systems, and this premise, it would appear, has captured recently the imagination of management at America's "better idea" company, namely, the Ford Motor Company (FoMoCo).

Ford is an excellent example of a major firm rethinking itself in industrial ecological terms. More than 360,000 employees work for it in house, and many other thousands of workers are employed by its 1,700 production suppliers, and all of them build hundreds of different cars and trucks. With sales in 200 markets around the world, Ford built and sold 7.2 million vehicles in 1999. These sales brought in $163 billion (USD), the fourth highest of all global corporations after Exxon Mobil, GM, and Wal-Mart Stores.6 Fortune magazine named Henry Ford in 1999 as the Businessman of the Twentieth Century, and undoubtedly no single firm has done as much as Ford to transform the world's built and unbuilt environments over the past 95 years since Ford was founded as an American company to build motorized vehicles.

As a corporate enterprise, Ford is unique in many ways, because it is still so highly controlled by the Ford family. Their unique ownership interest in FoMoCo remains embedded in the firm's special class of family shares, but the family's stake also has gained new with the election of William Clay Ford, Jr. to the chairmanship of FoMoCo's Board of Directors in 1998. Now age 42, Bill Ford began working with the company in various capacities in 1979. He was elected a FoMoCo Director in 1988, served as Vice-President of the Commercial Truck Vehicle Center in 1994-1995, became Chair of the Environmental and Public Policy Committee in 1997, and was named Chair of the Organizational Review and Nominating Committee in 1999.7 Edsel B. Ford and William Clay Ford also serve on the Board of Directors, but William Clay Ford, Jr. is now clearly the main directing force at FoMoCo for the Ford family. An avid environmentalist of certain type, he beginning to shift the ethos of the firm in many ways.

Prakash's analysis of corporate environmentalism concentrates upon examples where corporate involvement in ecological transformation goes "beyond-compliance" with specified minimal government regulations. Corporate policies that involve profitable changes with low inter-managerial conflict can be accounted for without much difficulty, but some firms go farther by adopting environmental responses that involve inter-managerial conflicts with low, or even no, profitable payoffs. Often these later changes can be explained as proactive social performance strategies, but they usually take a large dose of powerful leadership from above to succeed. Ford Motor Company seems to be a perfect example of such an enterprise, because it combines all of these factors in a single company. This crucial study explores how and why these outcomes seem to have happened as a consequence of corporate reengineering objectives, a proactive response to perceived public opinion about its products, and a change in the top management team.8 This program began in the 1980s, but it has gained momentum over the past two years with William Clay Ford, and Jacques Nasser working as Fordís new top management team at their respective posts as Chairman of the Board and CEO. On their watch, Ford Motor Company is working to become a "green" enterprise, but this "greenness" has certain limits and flaws that merit closer examination. At the same time, their ecological mentality is meeting and exceeding green expectations by pushing Ford toward more informational modes of production in the complete digitalization of its operations. This path should transform Ford Motor Company, as Bill Ford asserts, "from an old-line industrial company into a model company for the 21st century" In other words, environmental goals are a key objectives for FoMoCo, but these green values are a by-product of a new "digital Fordism."

By rethinking its businesses as an industrial ecology, then, Ford is also remaking itself from an analogue into a digital business. As a more information-intensive enterprise FoMoCo can transform quite radically and rapidly its corporate organization, business practices, and product line. This analysis reconsiders the digital rhetorical positions and managerial practices of Ford during this transition to re-evaluate how thoroughly Ford's reinvention of itself fulfills its own environmental promises. By looking at how far its performance falls short of these principles, it hopes to illustrate how ecological mentalities of a very particular type can be reinterpreted to suit the goals of ordinary business as usual in some organizations corporate without too much difficulty. Under this horizon, some environmental advances are made possible. Nonetheless, specific progress here at FoMoCo, and then the world at large falls far short of where it should be to create a truly ecological society.


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