How breast cancer research benefits from fracking and other abominations | Money |

How breast cancer research benefits from fracking and other abominations | Money |

Pink fracking drill bits. Bright pink fracking drill bits.

Now, I’m a bit of a cynic, and I know a reasonable amount about the macho ambiance on the teams drilling for crude oil and natural gas in places like North Dakota, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. The drill bits in question – those flashy, bright pink painted drill bits – are designed to be used in fracking, aka hydraulic fracturing.

So I can’t help wondering just what the reaction will be on those sites when the thousand pink-painted drill bits that Baker Hughes has ordered begin to show up. Baker Hughes paid breast cancer charity Susan G Komen for the Cure $100,000 for the right to produce and sell to the bits to their clients. The reaction on the drill rigs should be unprintable.

Of course, Baker Hughes wasn’t forking over the hundred grand in order to impress the roughnecks on the rigs. The goal was to burnish their image with folks like you and me, to show that fracking is consistent with sensitivity.

Too bad that was a fail, too.

Fracking is an increasingly controversial process that gets oil and natural gas out of otherwise hard-to-access spots where it is trapped in tiny pockets of rock. But the process requires fluids to be injected to break up those rock formations and release the hydrocarbons – and included in those fluids are toxic substances like benzene, that may be seeping into aquifers and contaminating groundwater.

A company whose product may contribute to increasing cancer rates is paying $100,000 to a cancer charity for the right to donate luridly-painted drill bits that will be used to inject more of those controversial fracking fluids? The ones that behave in unpredictable ways and that may be contaminating water supplies? Wow.

But it’s an excellent example of the perils of corporate philanthropy. On the one hand, we want to know that companies are trying to be good corporate citizens and help good causes. We also want to know whether organizations like Komen can effectively tap into wealthy corporations and extract donations.

Baker Hughes had a vested interest in making it clear to the public that it cared – it really, really cared – about cancer; it didn’t want people to suffer. It just picked a deeply tone-deaf way to demonstrate that. It’s morally inconsistent, to a lot of people, that fracking could be a force for good in cancer treatment.

Clearly, as the Case of the Pink Drill Bits demonstrates, it’s a tricky matter to get the word out there about how generous a company can be. Our default mode is to suspect that if a company is being as blatant as Baker Hughes is by painting drill bits bright pink, that there’s something in it for them above and beyond the simple pleasure of doing good.

This suspicion is already coded in our language: greenwashing is the derisive term for companies that hurt the environment looking to appear as saviors. ‘Pinkwashing’ is the same concept – except applied to women’s charities, particularly breast cancer research.

It pays to be think carefully about a lavish promotion of the company’s generosity and whether it comes hard on the heels of some kind of disclosure of a problem with the company’s product – a scandal involving its governance or some other corporate black eye.

A case in point is JP Morgan’s laudable involvement in supporting US military veterans and their families, to which the bank recently pledgedan additional $20m over the next five years. It’s a great program, and ranges from offering jobs to mortgage-free homes to veterans.

The context, alas, isn’t quite as great. In 2011, the bank had to fork over $56m to settle charges that it had overcharged active-duty military personnel on their mortgages, and then improperly foreclosed on their properties. Of that sum, $27m went straight to the military personnel members affected, as cash payments, while others had their repossessed homes affected.

So yes, the bank’s philanthropy is laudable, but if I were one of those veterans, I suspect I’d be rolling my eyes incredulously at the self-congratulatory tone of its press release.

When you look at the bigger picture, it’s hard to see companies like Walmart or BP as great corporate philanthropists, however generous BP’s corporate giving program may be. Does it matter that the Walmart VIP program gives grants of $250 to nonprofits where an employee volunteers 25 hours – when that fact is set in the broader context of the low wages the company pays its employees?

Here’s the bigger picture for Walmart. In 2010, the company pledged to donate $2bn to food banks over the next five years, in what was then one of the largest corporate philanthropic gifts ever recorded. Three years later, the giant retailer announced that the spending goal hadalready been exceeded: it had written checks for $2.6bn.

The level of irony here casts even those bright pink drill bits into the shade. About 15% of Walmart’s own employees rely on food stamps or equivalent programs in order to get enough to eat, because their full-time jobs at Walmart don’t pay enough for them to feed their families. Infamously, an Ohio Walmart ran a food drive last Thanksgiving for its own employeesAnd at the same time, Walmart’s foundation is spending billions to address hunger, to burnish the image of the company that isn’t paying its employees enough … Well, you get the point.

The epic failures like this are easy enough to pick up. How do you identify the companies that are getting the corporate do-gooding thing right? It’s tougher, because it’s much more a part of their culture, and less a matter of press releases, headlines or stunts. But here are a few tips:

  • Look for a company that not only matches employee philanthropic donations, but maximizes volunteer opportunities, whether by giving people time off or by organizing activities together with local organizations. Reed Construction Data, for instance, organizes an annual community “blitz build” project in conjunction with an architectural conference.
  • Check to see how long term some of the company’s philanthropic partnerships are. This will tell you whether they are stunts or if the company is committed.
  • Seek out B Corporations, like Patagonia, BetterWorld Books or Ben and Jerry’s. These companies have made a conscious decision to temper their pursuit of profits with a quest for the public good and have written it into their corporate charters.