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Can a company be evil?

|Includes: AU, BP p.l.c. (BP), FXCNY, NEM, NTOIF, PM
Pecunia non olet ("money does not smell") is a Latin saying that was originally related to the urine tax levied by the Roman emperors Nero and Vespasian in the 1st century upon the collection of urine [Wikipedia].

Most investors are in it for the money. But for many, like myself, it is not the only motive. I also want to own parts of businesses I see as great companies and to which I would have no problem to be personally associated with. If the company is making lives of people better or is particularly "green" - it is a bonus. But can there be EVIL companies?

Certainly many seem to view resource companies like oil giants and miners as "evil". I don't think they are evil. They are just producing something that is needed and they try to do it the best they can. Almost everybody in the developed world use products that leverage work of oil and mining companies on daily basis. If you think you don't use or have gold: check your computer that you currently are using to read this. There is a good chance that there is gold in either inside of the processor package (bonding between the chip and the chip package) or in the printed circuit board (surface finish such as ENIG). I am almost certain that you have gold in some device you are using since it has so many uses in electronics. And oil/diesel/gasoline. If you eat then you are using oil-derived products indirectly (used in transportation and farming).

An evil company to me is such that deliberately breaks laws, misleads public or dumps waste in the environment in an illegal or irresponsible manner (mining companies are forced to dump the so called tailings which I consider normal operation if done responsibly). Also exploitation of child or slave labor directly or indirectly is evil - pure and simple. Working conditions are also something that may turn a company "evil" in my mind.

There is a so called "The Public Eye Award" that has been organized since year 2000 by Berne Declaration and Friends of the Earth (in 2009 replaced by Greenpeace). It marks a critical counterpoint to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. The Public Eye reminds the corporate world that social and environmental misdeeds have consequences - for the affected people and territory, but also for the reputation of the offender.

The "contenders" for this "award" are this year (in the order of ranking at the time of writing this article):
  1. BP: The oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico cost 11 people their lives and has killed off vast marine areas for years to come.
  2. Neste Oil: Under the misleading name of “Green Diesel", Neste Oil mass-produces biofuel that results in the clearing of rain forest.
  3. Axpo: Axpo obtains Uranium from the most radioactive place on Earth and has been concealing this fact for years.
  4. Foxconn: Foxconn’s miserable working conditions drove at least 18 young Chinese to commit suicide in 2010.
  5. AngloGold Ashanti: AngloGold Ashanti’s gold mining in Ghana contaminates soil and poisons people.
  6. Philip Morris: Philip Morris filed a complaint against Uruguay’s anti-smoking laws and thus undermines public health policy.
While I'm not a big fan of Greenpeace due their anti nuclear power stance which I find unpractical as the so called "green" alternatives are really not that green if you take the whole supply and material chain into account. And I don't like some of their other activities, but this type of activity I can support. I do take this type of information into account when doing investment decisions - at least I try to.

Newmont Mining (one of my holdings) has been awarded this dubious award in 2009, but I do not find anything particularly "evil" in the background info. Open pit mining, like the ones in China used to extract key materials for wind turbines and hybrid cars, are not exactly good for the environment nor the people living nearby. But that's usually the safeast and cheapest way to extract minerals.

However, I did drop one gold miner from my portfolio because their safety history was just horrific. Gold mining is dangerous business, but there seems to be big differences between the operators. Some have quite poor safety records.

You can cast your vote by following this link:

Disclosure: I am long NEM.

Additional disclosure: I am long gold and several companies in gold/copper mining and oil business. I have no connection to any organization mentioned.