Corporate heroes and zeros: McDonald’s leaves Russia and Disney angers Florida
Outside of arms dealers, it’s hard to think of societies with a less sensitive moral and social compass than global commodity traders. By quietly buying and selling hard-to-trace metals, oil, grains and chemicals, companies like Cargill, Glencore and Trafigura have been accused of supporting some of the world’s most odious regimes.
It is therefore worth noting – and applauding – the decision taken at the beginning of April by the Geneva company Vitol, the world’s number one independent oil trader, to stop processing Russian oil products by the end of 2022. Researchers from the university from Yale counted nearly 1,000 companies like Vitol that voluntarily reduced or terminated their relations with Russia in protest against the invasion of Ukraine.
Some withdrew earlier than others. Vitol’s decision was revealed more than a month after the invasion began. For most companies – which include household names like American Express, Apple and Uber – the pain of withdrawal is minimal. Russia’s economy has shrunk to the point where, measured in US dollars, it is not much larger than that of many states. And most Russians outside the big cities are still too poor to afford Western brands.
Even so, some companies have made substantial sacrifices. London-based oil giant BP has incurred charges of up to $25 billion by dumping its 19.75% stake in Rosneft, the Russian energy group. PepsiCo wrote down nearly US$500 million on its Russian drinks and snacks business.
Putin has threatened to auction shares of any foreign company that refuses to resume operations, in what he calls “the first step towards nationalization”. In the case of McDonald’s, the burger giant sold its stores to a Siberian businessman, Alexander Govor, in May, who says he paid “much less than market price”. Govor quickly rebranded the chain as Vkusno & tochka and reopened more than a dozen locations in June. McDonald’s said it wrote up $1.4 billion to cover the release.
Two of the Yale researchers, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Steven Tian, wrote in The New York Times that “while it is impossible to say whether all of these endeavors are driven by purely moral concerns, they have all gone beyond which is legally required by international sanctions.
“We realize that some companies are already doing business with many other repressive and murderous regimes around the world. But now there is a chance to draw a line under a country, an unprovoked war of aggression, and make a difference.
Acting alone, even giants like BP and Vitol have little hope of hurting Putin, and their actions are unlikely to have slowed the invasion. But by joining forces, they helped isolate his regime and put principle above profit.
Zero: Walt Disney Company
Some companies softly refuse to take sides on the hot political issues of the day. Others bravely speak up. Walt Disney recently tried to play it both ways, but ended up irritating almost everyone.
The first signs of trouble at the entertainment giant came in March when reports surfaced that executives at Pixar Animation Studios, a unit of Disney, were censoring scenes from films showing “openly gay affection”. Pixar employees quit their jobs to protest the decision to cut a gay kiss from a movie about Buzz Lightyear, a fictional character from the Toy Story movies. Pixar bosses quickly backtracked.
Meanwhile, Disney was trying to keep its distance from a growing outcry over Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, which bans teaching about sexual orientation and gender identity for young students. and the limit for older people.
The law, dubbed the Don’t Say Gay Bill, is the brainchild of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is using issues of cultural divergence for the apparent purpose of furthering his still-unannounced ambition to seek the nomination. Republican presidential election in 2024.
Disney has an extensive presence in Florida and is the state’s largest private sector employer. Its CEO, Bob Chapek, initially responded to the Don’t Say Gay bill by saying he didn’t want the company to become “political football.” But, once again, a chorus of protests from employees, the LGBTQ community and other critics persuaded him to change his mind. Within days, Chapek had turned around, grateful: “You needed me to be a stronger ally in the fight for equal rights and I let you down. I’m sorry.” Disney suspended political donations in Florida and vowed to step up its fight against similar legislation in other parts of the country.
If he thought that was the end of his problems, he was wrong. DeSantis was quick to accuse Disney of hypocrisy for raising money from family entertainment, but then opposed a law designed, he says, to protect the rights of parents.
The state’s Republican-controlled legislature rushed to pass a law that stripped Disney of special tax status under which it was able to run a large area around the Magic Kingdom almost as it wished without interference from local municipalities.
Disney executives have undoubtedly learned a hard lesson: trying to please everyone isn’t usually a winning strategy.