Dow fights for its image, but not the victims in Bhopal

Feature story - December 10, 2002
"Did you know... that Dow Chemical is responsible for the birth of the modern environmental movement?" So begins an internet spoof of Dow Chemical Company's smarmy public relations website which has caused a bit of a web sensation over the last few weeks.

Living. Posioned daily!

It briefly appeared at http://www.dow-chemical.com for about 72 hours before Dow shut it down. The site mimicked Dow's real site closely in design and content, but contained some uncharacteristic honesty about such things as sustainable development and the Bhopal disaster, which departed from Dow's normal spin.

Regarding the Bhopal disaster, the parody site said: "We understand the anger and hurt," said Dow Spokesperson Bob Questra in the fake press release. "But Dow does not and cannot acknowledge responsibility. If we did, not only would we be required to expend many billions of dollars on cleanup and compensation - much worse, the public could then point to Dow as a precedent in other big cases. 'They took responsibility; why can't you?' Amoco, BP, Shell, and Exxon all have ongoing problems that would just get much worse. We are unable to set this precedent for ourselves and the industry, much as we would like to see the issue resolved in a humane and satisfying way."

"But what about Bhopal? It was an accident that occurred far away, one whose victims have few resources to ensure Dow is held responsiblefor Union Carbide's mistakes. Do we have a moral responsibility to makesure the site of the disaster is cleaned up and its victims compensated fairly? Of course we do. Would we be likely to do so if we faced consumer pressure, a major stockholder resolution, or a significant brand attack on Dow's good name? Of course we would. Once profitability is on the line, our moral responsibility becomes clear."

The parody site went on to un-spin Dow:

"Over time, we have moved away from a relatively narrow, localised hazard management to a broader use of public relations - essentially to reposition Dow in the public's mind not as a chemical company, but as a company with a mission to improve life on our planet. That's a mission no environmental organisation can attack us for - it's their own."

"Responsible Care is a voluntary initiative within the global chemical industry to safely ensure the positive images of our products are safeguarded from inception in our public relations department, through distribution, to ultimate disposal, and to involve the public in our image-making processes. Born after the Bhopal disaster in 1984, Responsible Care has quickly spread to 45 countries...Setting corporate targets and judging ourselves against them is an important part of our strategy to ensure that we remain free of the fetters of over-regulation by government."

The response from the real Dow...

According to The Yes Men, an organisation of anti-corporate pranksters who have claimed responsibility for the spoof, the site was announced by a press release distributed to about 400 individuals, primarily journalists and members or fans of the artists collective which created the site.

From there it did that internet wildfire thing, and the site sawmore than a quarter of a million visits in just 72 hours - includingmore than 8000 from the Dow.com domain. Email responses to the sitewere divided between a small minority who recognised the site to be aspoof (and almost unanimously praised it) and those who really thoughtDow was responsible for the soothing but illogical and amoral publicrelations hype (and universally condemned it).

According to The Yes Men, Dow was "hopping mad" about the spoof andwithin 24 hours issued a demand to the site's Internet ServiceProvider, Verio, to remove the content immediately as it was inviolation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). A letter fromDow's lawyers stated that:

"The violation of Dow's invaluable copyrights is causing and will continue to cause Dow to suffer irreparable damage as long as the website remains operational."

Verio not only shut down Dow-Chemical.com, they shut down the entire "thing.net" - a hosting service for dozens of artists and activists who had no relationship to the Dow spoof - but which included a few perennial spoof practitioners. The Verio shutdown only lasted a few hours, until Dow lawyers figured out that they could legally seize the domain name to shut down the site. How?

Well, the pranksters had registered dow-chemical.com with a fictitious email address, but under the real name and address of DowCEO Michael Parker's son James Parker. Dow lawyers simply had the real James Parker send a copy of his driver's license to the registrar as proof he was the owner of the domain name, then demanded transfer of the site to the real Dow corporation. The spoof content vanished.

But the site survives...

From Dow's perspective, the trouble with internet activism is that everybody can play, and plugging a hole in the dam with one finger usually leads to another leak springing up elsewhere.

Within hours of the site shutdown, the content returned at a new address, http://dow-chemical.va.com.au along with a new link: "Download this entire site." Yes Men spokesperson Andy Bichlbaum told the New York Times that "if Dow gets this one too, it will continue to exist," as activists have been encouraged to mirror the site content at additional web addresses. The site currently appears at six different addresses, including dowethics.com and bhopal.doesntexist.com.

Dow more concerned about its image than victims in Bhopal

Dow has consistently refused to take responsibility for Bhopal, clean up of the still toxic site, or acknowledge that it inherited Union Carbide's moral and legal responsibilities for the disaster when it bought Union Carbide. A wide coalition of victims of the disasterand environmental groups have been pressuring Dow to clean up the site, and recently marked the 18th anniversary of the tragedy with renewed pressure on the company. All this seems to have hit a nerve.

In an open letter from Dow CEO Michael Parker to the staff of the company, Greenpeace has been singled out as a particular threat to corporate morale.

"To provide some balance to the claims you'll likely hear from Greenpeace over the coming weeks, I wanted to reiterate Dow's perspective on the [Bhopal] issue." Parker then notes that Dow has "for some time, been exploring various philanthropic initiatives" which might address the "humanitarian needs" of the Bhopal victims. Here iterates that an Indian court has called the average 300-500 USD per victim settlement provided by Union Carbide "just, equitable and reasonable," despite the fact that no provision was made for cleanup of the site and uncompensated injuries and fatalities continue to mount.

Parker then states the bottom line in stark, challenging terms:

"What we cannot and will not do - no matter where Greenpeace takes their protests and how much they seek to undermine Dow's reputation with the general public - is accept responsibility for the Bhopal accident."

When Dow bought the assets of Union Carbide in December of 2001, they also bought the liabilities. If Dow wants to live up to the lofty terms of the self-image of Corporate Responsibility they proclaim at their web site, Dow is going to have to accept that ducking responsibility for Bhopal is simply not good enough.

At Dow's real web site, the company claims that "We are part of an ever-evolving global society - one that values organisations such as Dow not only for our products and services, but also for the distinctive contributions we make to our world and its people."

A truly distinctive contribution to our world and its people would be for Dow to say it's simply not right that an Indian court absolved Union Carbide of further liability for Bhopal. What global society would truly value would be a Dow declaration to live up to a higher standard of moral responsibility than they are technically required to make, and to use the greatest industrial tragedy of the last century to set the highest benchmark of corporate responsibility that the world has yet seen.

All that would take is a decision to clean up Bhopal, to make real compensation for the dead, and to make real contributions to improving the lot of the living. It's not a lot to ask of the world's largest chemical company. Here is a chance for them to improve life, daily.

What do you think?

In all, several hundred people wrote to the site authors including journalists seeking interviews with "Michael Parker" about his press release. Most were appalled at the statements in the press release, but not so surprised that they suspected the release to be a hoax.

What do you think about Dow's refusal to clean up the site of the Bhopal disaster and properly compensate victims. 

Here's a sample of the email responses posted on the parody site:

"I'm actually a shareholder of Dow Chemical and don't agree with your position that your responsibility is strictly to your shareholders. I feel that corporations have a civic and moral responsibility as well. Let's be honest. If it hadn't happened in a third-world country, such as India, this issue wouldn't have been so "inexpensively" dealt with and so easily swept under the rug. DowChemical is merely justifying its decision on no other grounds than the obvious fact that ducking the issue works in your favor."

"I am shocked, appalled, horrified, sickened and disgusted with you. I guess "corporate responsibility" is the biggest oxymoron of them all. Rest assured, you will never receive a dime from me as a customer. I will make sure I boycott any company that has any connection to yours.

"Some time ago I had a debate with a friend about whether or not "evil" exists. I took the side that it doesn't. People are just misguided, I said. Well, I take it back. You are EVIL INCARNATE!!!!!!"

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