Market Failure or Marketing Failure?

A Decent Factory slams corporate social responsibility


In an age when you can buy a ring tone to feed a tsunami victim, eyeliner to fight AIDS, and a compilation album to help free Aung San Suu Kyi, will Hollywood's favorite villain, the cold-hearted capitalist, find himself recast as a dewy-eyed do-gooder?

A Decent Factory, released in New York last week, is a cinematic olive branch to business-bashers—a documentary about a corporate giant (Finnish phone maker Nokia) trying to atone for its profit-seeking excesses. But in a 79-minute public relations attempt gone horribly wrong, the rapacious capitalist is reborn as something arguably worse: the righteous fool.

Nokia's young execs tap into the ethos of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and proceed to trend their way onto the ethical investment bandwagon. The camera follows a crew of rookie CSR enthusiasts from the first boardroom-based inklings of ethics fever to the factory floor in Shenzhen, China. Filmmaker Thomas Balmes' previous documentary, Christ comes to the Papuans followed the trauma of Christian conversion in Papua New Guinea, and the mayhem provoked by warring churches. A Decent Factory is a film about a massive corporation trying to get religion, and while no one ends up dead, the results are not pretty.

"How much do we want to change the world?" one Nokia manager asks during a slideshow presentation, "…or do we want to make illusion that we are clean?" Hanna Kaskinen, Nokia's "ethical and environmental specialist," does not have a ready answer to that particular question. She just knows the companies who sell Nokia phones to text-happy kids don't want their product "stained with the blood of the children from Southeast Asia." She and her British ethics consultant, Louise Jamison, hop on a China-bound plane, off to reassure Nokia suits that no blood is being spilled over Nokia phones.

The bleak halls of the Nokia's major charger supplier, it turns out, hold no human rights atrocities, but that doesn't make them comfortable to walk through. The factory is a hideous concrete behemoth ringed with cramped dormitories. Inside, hundreds of uniformed, stone-faced young women perform the same tasks in mind-numbing repetition. The women (described as "very reliable, very low maintenance" by one of the factory's managers) are just backdrop; we learn virtually nothing of their lives, of the hukou system that limits their options, of their plans for their future and whether cutting charger cable in Shenzhen will help them get there. Instead, we follow Hanna and her coterie as they whisk their way through room after room of bored young women.

Kaskinen, trotting behind an increasingly irritated British manager, doesn't know what she is doing there. She transitions from tourist ("6000 kilometres of cables a week!" the manager enthuses), to human rights crusader ("I hope they are not just wearing those masks for us"), to public relations maven ("it's really a business risk") and diplomat ("That's very honest of you!"). In the workers' cafeteria, staring into what appears to be a garbage can full of broth, she exclaims, "In fact, it looks delicious!"

Jamison, the British ethics consultant, knows exactly what she is there to do—play factory patrol. Notebook in hand, gnawing at a pen, she hunts out violations. When she finds one, she tells Kaskinen in a wide-eyed whisper, hand cupped like a schoolgirl with a secret. Jamison tells a middle manager to "think about" hazardous chemicals stored next to drinking water. For his part, he orders an underling to "put the chemicals right now in the kitchen."

The embodiment of a corporation deeply confused about its mission, Kaskinen comes off a chattering hypocrite. She vacillates between PR guru, which is what she is, and human rights activist, which she has neither the expertise nor the will to pull off. She's not pacing the halls, clearly, for the woman placing parts on the assembly line, but for the ethics-conscious consumer back in Finland. But until she can admit that she is speaking for consumers (and after their cash), she can't make precise demands to justify the "ethical assessment" they're calling for.

Her problem isn't, as Balmes implies, that she is concerned about the bottom line, but that she has no idea what matters when it comes to that line. The workers (more than 90 percent of them women) are paid less than minimum wage, but that's because of deductions for housing. They aren't abused, but they don't have contracts. The hours are long, but, according to Jamison, not "extreme overtime." From a P.R. perspective, what flies? When you're marketing human decency, which inequities matter?

Despite the confusion, the factory is clearly a better place for Nokia having taken an interest. A promise of contracts is extracted, there are small raises to be had. There is the sense that someone is watching the foremen watching the women.

Balmes precedes the film's first sequence with Milton Friedman's line, "The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits," and the implication throughout the film is that profit-seeking capitalists will never change. Of course, nothing in the CSR creed says they have to. If good standards sell, everyone wins, even as Hollywood pumps out an ever-expanding cast of capitalist villains. Yet unless cause-conscious businesses can stop apologizing and start marketing, CSR will play out as a farce rather than a success story.