Yale professor will shame companies staying in Russia

(AF AFP)

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor specializing in social responsibility, attacks companies that did not want to cut ties with Russia. He explains himself.

Following the invasion of Ukraine, Jeffrey Sonnenfeld launched a list of companies that chose to leave Russia or stay there, available to all consumers and investors. Professor specializing in corporate social responsibility at the American University of Yale, he is used to discussing with the big bosses. He chose to step up after the attack on Russia because there is no “golden mean” possible against Moscow, he explains in an interview with AFP.

– Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, why did you start this list?

– Right after the war started, a dozen companies took the initiative to cut ties with Russia, and they were not the ones who usually took the first steps in human rights or societal issues: oil companies (BP, Shell, Exxon), business service companies (McKinsey, Deloitte and major law firms) and technology giants (Apple, Oracle, Twitter, Amazon).

But we also soon saw a streak of fraudsters, companies that with a smart PR team tried to get away with misleading messages. I put together a small team with no ideology or affiliation with any of these companies to objectively assess what these companies were doing.

It was originally a list in two categories, companies that stay and those that leave. But we quickly realized that it was not enough because some companies sent out very vague and ambiguous messages. We now have five categories, from companies that withdraw completely (from Russia) to those that continue.

– What made the companies act?

– For some of the companies that moved first, one could say that they acted in their own interest because, for example, they were too involved in oligarchs and wanted to avoid having their reputation damaged.

Some companies that have faced controversy in recent years (such as oil companies with climate change or technology companies with private data protection) have used this opportunity to show that they can sometimes choose the right side.

And in some companies, employees even rebelled. Generation Z really adheres to certain principles and believes that where they buy, where they invest and where they work matters. Within the big consulting firms, there was certainly some anger over serving the devil.

Some companies left in Russia claim that they are acting for the benefit of their employees or for humanitarian reasons. Is it not justified?

It is appalling that companies are trying to justify their presence in Russia for humanitarian reasons or to take care of their employees. This is pure greed. They must be held accountable and ashamed.

Companies like Nestlé and Mondelez have been assuring for weeks that they produce essential products. On the list of these so-called essential products are KitKat bars, Nesquik chocolate, Oreo cakes (…).

Above all, this positioning undermines the whole purpose of financial sanctions and voluntary withdrawal of companies. The idea is not to bring comfort to the Russian people and let them continue to be complacent. The idea is to make them uncomfortable, to increase their stress so that they question their leaders.

Some seek to understand by saying “the Russian people only have access to filtered information”. But the Russians know it themselves (…). It is up to them to question what they are told. If they do not, they are deliberately ignorant.

Ukrainians do not have that luxury. They were cast a harsh reality in their faces. Russians break ceasefire, children’s hospitals are bombed. There is no “middle ground” here.

Every day, companies tell us that they are furious at being listed as companies still operating in Russia. They pass on to us the threats they receive from hacker groups like Anonymous. But that’s not our problem, it’s a choice they’ve made. And if there are negative reactions, they just have to change their attitude.

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