Skeletons in the closet: can CSR overcome a company's dark past?

There’s a fabulous dialogue going on in the ‘updates’ section of JustMeans that has sprouted into stakeholder activism at its best (and it’s ongoing – I can’t keep up with the comments!)  It all started when Christine posted about the recent announcement of a settlement in a long-fought case against Shell regarding the executions of a number of Nigerian activists.  14 years after activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and others were executed by a Nigerian military regime Shell has paid $15.5 to settle the lawsuit alleging their involvement.  While they haven’t admitted involvement, the payout implies guilt, and is providing some closure for the involved families and the Ogoni people and region.

But like so much restitution made after the fact, it raises all sorts of complexities regarding whether company policy has truly changed, is it being run responsibly now?  The region is still swamped with poverty, and while Shell’s indiscretions of the past seem to have calmed down, at what point can a company be let off the hook for downright atrocities, both human and environmental, in its past?  It reminded me of another article I read awhile back about a community in Ecuador who, like the Ogoni, continue to deal with the fallout of decades-old oil practices.  The portion of the Amazon rain forest they inhabit is now clear of drilling and oil operations, but an existing case is attempting to hold Chevron accountable for the past activities of Texaco (which they acquired in 2001) and the various environmental and health impacts still experienced.  Chevron ranked 29th in CRO's 100 Best Corporate Citizens of 2009, but how can that let them off the hook for what happened in the past?  Doesn't someone need to be held responsible?

The JustMeans dialogue regarding Shell has raised questions of how to balance a company’s “irresponsible” actions (of the past or present) with the good (it was suggested that Shell has made great advancements in renewable energy, which was later refuted but can still be used for discussion’s sake).  It also raises questions about when it is time to “forgive” a company for the past, and support them in current corporate social responsibility efforts to make good choices for business and the communities they both operate in and serve.

Take a look at the discussion, and stay tuned for some proposed communication with Shell from the JustMeans community to address these questions and our thoughts on how Shell can move forward while still honoring those who have been harmed by its past.

If you'd like to know more about the case, here's a compilation of the various links that have come up in the discussion:
Video 1 “The Case Against Shell”
Video 2 Democracy Now Interview with Amy Goodman
Blog “I buy gas at Shell; Am I complicit in the terrorism? Probably.”
Shell Admits Fueling Corruption (2004)
Saro-Wiwa’s son: Justice is always hard won
Shell settlement with Ogoni people stops short of full justice
In Shell’s own words