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Sunday, 5 March 2017

CORPORATE IRRESPONSIBILITY: TIME TO 'FESS UP, #ENVIROSERV

I was woken the night before last at around 2.30am with the toxic stench of the #landfill 20km from our house which had come wafting into our room. This has been our reality for the past 6 weeks. For thousands of people closer to the landfill it has been their reality for the past year. For the people and staff in the immediate vicinity, they have had to live with it for 15 years. As usual, I found the fog of the stench triggering the red mist of my own rage at the fact that so many thousands of people have to endure an almost daily assault, whilst the perpetrator, does nothing but deny its responsibility.

The perpetrator is #Enviroserv, a company which has the temerity on its website to claim that it has been operating for 37 years with "total integrity" and offering "environmental peace of mind".

You need only look at the website of Upper Highway Air or the Facebook page What's that Smell, with some 9,000 members, to understand that this is not about some isolated whinging from a couple of community members, but a real and substantial problem that is causing unhappiness, pestilence and massive anger in the Upper Highway Area of KZN. A calculation using my rudimentary school maths (area of a circle = π x r^2), and assuming my house is at the outer extremity of the problem and everyone within the same radius is being chemically gassed, the area being polluted is at least a staggering 1200 square km! There are endless stories of asthma, eczema, burning eyes, upper and lower respiratory problems, rare cancers, kidney failure, joint pains, chronic fatigue and children being born with cleft palates, to name a few, which are occurring on an unprecedented scale in the area, with the higher incidences in the areas closest to the landfill. Horses in the area have unexplained bleeding noses and there is even a threat that this year's Durban July is at risk. The link is incontrovertible. There is nothing else in the area which could be the cause. The Upper Highway has its own real live Erin Brockovich calamity brewing.

And what has Enviroserv done? Deny, deny, deny, blame the Department of the Environment, blame other polluters, refuse to disclose information about what is going onto the dump (in the name of "client confidentiality") try to silence activists through the courts, vowing to fight criminal charges against them and complained about the adverse publicity losing it customers. Conveniently, the executives of Enviroserv live nowhere near the dump, so they have no physical experience of the adverse effect they are having on thousands of lives. As long as it isn't affecting them, why should they care about anything other than the profit they are making out of receiving hazardous waste, much of it suspected of being not even South African waste, but imported from around the world. Corporate greed is very expedient.

Enviroserv claims that its values include "Integrity - for its own sake and because lives and the planet are at stake" and "Quality - because lived depend on it and society deserves it". If ever there was a corporate incongruence between saying and doing, this is it, right up there with Enron and its own Code of Ethics which was so discredited years ago. Perhaps they are using the tried-and-tested Oscar strategy: if you protest your innocence enough you start believing that you actually are innocent. They are breaking fundamental tenets of good corporate governance principles by their lack of transparency, lack of stakeholder engagement, disingenuity and fundamental disrespect for the environment and everyone who is depends on clean air. 

What if Enviroserv (and other corporate delinquents) could, instead of paying homage to their bottom line, simply confess and say: "Yes, the smell comes from our dump. We are  really sorry. We goofed and we will do what it takes to restore 100% clean air, even if that means closing the landfill and taking a knock on our profits." That is what corporate responsibility is about: sucking up the consequences which come with messing up in your business, not empty platitudes on a website which are about as convincing as Trump saying he loves Jews and immigrants.

There is something about transparency, honesty and taking responsibility which gives one a sense of trust. When Pick 'n Pay had its food poisoning scare a few years ago, it came right out with it, told the public what was going on and the trust index soared. Shell did something similar when they had an oil spill in Sydney harbour some years ago: their reputation was, if not enhanced, then at least preserved. Lying, denying, fighting and not doing what it takes to fix the mess dumps reputations in the bin, especially when you're in the trash business. 

Integrity, transparency, responsibility, honesty and making good aren't just for corporates: they're for all of us. Think George Washington chopping down his father's cherry tree: whether the story is true or not, it did his eternal reputation no harm.

So, come on Enviroserv: time to 'fess up and make good. Nothing less will do.

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