Doing Good Business

Entry by: jaguar

31st May 2017
Colin makes that awful noise, a grasping inhalation, that precedes a long speech. I look up from my screen trying to work out if I could make a dash to the loo before he starts. ‘I need to talk to you about corporate social responsibility. We don’t operate in a vacuum. If we did we’d all die of oxygen starvation. We inhabit societies like busy parasites sucking out people and other resources.’

Julie and I roll our eyes at each other, quickly so Colin doesn’t notice. There’s a long pause pregnant with Colin’s expectation that one of us will return his conversational serve. I sigh. ‘So?’ I’m not going to waste more than one of my finite supply of words encouraging Colin.

‘So, in the eyes of the law, a company is regarded as a fictional person and that status gives it limited liability and unlimited longevity.’

‘Super.’ Julie’s tone undermines the word’s usual meaning. I suspect she has no idea what Colin just said.

‘I thought,’ Colin pins first Julie then me with one of his sharper looks, ‘it would be interesting to think of Freeman Limited as a person made up of elements of the three of us.’

I suppress the image of a new-born hybrid, it’s too horrible to entertain. Instead I don the defence of supreme stupidity because it usually works a treat. ‘You what?’

‘If Freeman Limited were a single person how environmentally conscious would you say that person was?’

I think of the enormous plastic drums round the back of the yard emblazoned by skulls and crossbones. Yet we leave them open to fill with rainwater. Every few weeks the warehouse manager pushes them over so their contents wash straight over the concrete yard to the banks of the nearby river. The council sold the land on the other bank and now it’s an enormous housing development, all US East Coast weather-boarded despite being in an industrial part of Kent. If I go out at lunchtime I can hear children playing there.

Julie is clearly thinking, her eyebrows are all knotted. She told me yesterday that she was about to ask for a raise so I wasn’t to muddy the waters by asking for one too. It was her idea, she said, perhaps I could ask next year. I suspect Julie would only join a union if she was the only member. Whatever she’s about to say will be meant to impress Colin so I try not to listen as it will only make me loathe her more. It’s already got to the point where I have to disinfect the toilet seat if I think she’s been in there. I bring cover spray in from home.

‘We, I mean Freemans, make products with lovely scents. Doesn’t that mean we improve people’s lives?’

It’s too late to cover my ears, I heard her. I widen my eyes at her before I remember it will make no difference, she doesn’t care for my opinions. I’m a Vegan and she reads the Daily Mail. We are never going to be bosom buddies. The only thing that unites us is our hatred of Colin and working at Freemans.

Colin nods at her, a smile trying but failing to take over his prissy mouth. ‘Yes our products make people’s homes smell better so that’s a bit of a giveback.’

The only thing we’re giving them is a cancer risk. We sprinkle a bit of lavender in the mix so we can print ‘made with natural ingredients’ on the label but the rest of the materials, the ‘fragance’ are sweated into existence in laboratories in countries that aren’t big on testing their effects. Take diethyl phthalate – we put it in everything but there are hardly any research studies into its impact on people. I’m trying to put that right by running one myself.

You didn’t really think I worked at Freemans for the pitiful salary or the job satisfaction, did you? I have a first-class chemical engineering degree and a conscience. I grew up in this town and I’ve always known the delightful smells of freshly washed cotton, vanilla pods and crushed strawberries that billow out of this factory day and night were made from poisons. I learnt it from all those nights listening to my parents cough and from the red blistering of my little brother’s skin.

‘So,’ Colin had worked himself into a frenzy and I hadn’t heard a word, ‘the long and the short of it is appearing to have a social conscience is good for business and I think Freeman Limited do need to embody that in one person, in the member of the management team that best expresses it. Congratulations, Polly, I’m promoting you to Corporate Social Responsibility Manager.’

My mouth is wide open. Julie gives me a slow hand-clap while she is clearly chewing a lemon. ‘Thanks Colin. Is there a job description? I mean, are you certain I’m the right person for the job?’

He laughs and the gleam of intelligence in his eyes makes me shiver. ‘Oh, Polly, I’m certain you are. I’m sorry we can’t give you a payrise but all you’ve really got to do is keep the press sweet, let them think we care about the community. Oh and keep those coyotes off our backs about the emissions. You know some of those guys, don’t you? I’m sure it won’t take too much of your time because you mustn’t neglect your old job.’

‘Shall we have a coffee?’ I get up from my desk and collect their mugs. I take them through to the kitchenette trying to work out what I should do. Colin has basically increased my workload and make me the interface with my environmental group. He must suspect I’m not what I seem. I boil the kettle and take the various syrups I’ve got Julie and Colin addicted to out of the cupboard.

I think of Colin’s plump children, his permanently breathless frightened wife. I’m sorry for them but they have to be seen as collateral damage in a more important war. This factory must be closed down. Even if it means Julie's Geoff, confined to the house with his asthma, will be more trapped still. I must do what’s right for the planet and this neighbourhood, I can’t let little moral issues stand in my way. I grab the vial of diethyl phthalate, measure it carefully and mix it into the vanilla syrup. Today is as good a day as any to establish the lethal dose.