Aaron Chatterji and Siona Listokin think lefty efforts to persuade corporations to do the right thing aren’t working very well. (He teaches at Duke’s business school; she works at the Center for American Progress.) 

Writing in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, they explain that when globalization made it hard for U.S. legislators to pass business regulations, activists began negotiating with large corporations, often getting them to sign codes of conduct. How’s the new strategy working?

“Reexamining the Nike battle over labor standards in the 1990s — viewed as one of the premier successes of the CSR [corporate social responsibility] movement — offers a concrete example of this dilemma. As a result of that mobilization, there are several codes of conduct for apparel factories, including codes created by the Workers’ Rights Consortium (WRC), the Fair Labor Association (FLA), and the Worldwide Responsible Apparel Production (WRAP) accord. The differences between these codes are significant, especially on such central but complex issues like the ‘living wage,’ the independence of monitors, and the right to organize. But do consumers know the difference? Probably not…. As long as the company can claim that it is complying with some pleasantly named code of conduct, most consumers are likely to be pacified, even if the code lacks any real teeth.”

That’s a problem with more than just privately negotiated agreements. For instance, anyone who’s followed the effort to pass federal organic food standards (covered in the Reader July 16, 2004, but you’ll have to use the paid archive to read it) knows there are problems when government’s involved too. (The latest news on this ongoing fiasco is at the underappreciated New Standard.)

Eternal vigilance and all that.  So why do Chatterji and Listokin single out the activists’ efforts, especially since they offer no solution to the globalization problem that drove activists in this direction in the first place?