ExxonMobil’s Ethics: A Reflection on the Limits of Reform

By Chris Barton, Editor-in-Chief

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

― R. Buckminster Fuller

Anyone who spends a lot of time around me knows that I’m not very fond of ExxonMobil. I constantly use them as the classic example of a big, bad corporation, responsible for the slow destruction of the world. In conversation, I semi-jokingly caricature them as the arch-nemesis of sustainability and a cartoonish organization akin to Lord Business’ ‘Octan Corporation’ from ‘The LEGO Movie.’

This is, of course, unfair to ExxonMobil. The company is not a cadre of suit-wearing sociopaths sitting in high-backed chairs, laughing maniacally – it is a successful corporation that serves an important role in the functioning of our world. As my professors always point out, I use their products daily when I drive to school and back. And to their credit, the company has taken some laudatory strides toward supporting sustainability and human rights. It has invested heavily in carbon capture technology and it supports and endorses the Paris Climate Accord. Exxon Mobil is even in favor of a carbon tax.

But at its core, ExxonMobil is an oil and gas company, and therefore its interests often clash with the interests of those of us who imagine a sustainable future free of fossil fuels. Although I respect the company as a well-run organization staffed by generally upright and decent people, I have always felt that their operations are symptom of a broken status quo and a barrier to progress.

Which is why so many people were surprised when I showed up at the ExxonMobil info session hosted last week by the CMC.

I constantly grapple with the question of if companies like ExxonMobil can be brought into line with the principles of sustainability. As much as I believe that these companies are standing in the way of a sustainable world, they represent huge investments in social and physical infrastructure, and have the capabilities to make impressive change. I regularly ask myself: could a company such as ExxonMobil be convinced to change course, and direct their significant resources toward supporting and promoting the goals of sustainability? Because if so, then achieving sustainability requires investing in the reformation of these companies, working from the inside to transform how they think and how they operate. But if not, then achieving sustainability requires us to spend our time and resources building sustainable alternatives that over time will make the ExxonMobils of the world obsolete.

I have generally been a pessimist about the prospects of reforming these companies. The amount of energy it would take to overcome the institutional inertia of a behemoth like ExxonMobil seems immense; plus it has always seemed that investing in such a problematic company – even with the intent of changing how it works – would be counterproductive. But I also like to try and prove myself wrong, which is why I decided to attend the career session and drop off a copy of my sustainability-soaked resume. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hear how ExxonMobil’s employees view their company from the inside.

Despite blending in perfectly with the other students, all dressed in our business drag, I felt out of place as soon as I entered the session. There was a vague fear that someone would out me as a hippy environmentalist and I’d be escorted from the room. But I was there in good faith to hear what they had to say and to talk with them: I was open to challenging my assumptions about how ExxonMobil worked and how it views sustainability.

The presentation started in a straightforward manner – the three Tbirds presenting talked in broad strokes about how the business operates, what the company culture is like, and their personal career trajectories. But an unexpected theme arose early in the session: that ExxonMobil was an especially ethical company.

Supervillain jokes aside, I had never thought ExxonMobil to a particularly unethical company. Rather, I saw them as out of touch with the times, a successful company whose success had led them into intransigence. I had assumed that when they took actions that ended up getting them in trouble, those actions simply hadn’t been considered under the harsh, flickering light of contemporary ethical discourse. I had assumed that the hard logic of profit directed their actions, without concern for wishy-washy ethics.

But then I heard that “integrity and ethics are the cornerstone of what makes this business run.” And again, that they take regulatory compliance and transparency as ethical imperatives. And again, that they aim to act with integrity in everything they do. And then, to really drive it home, we were told a story about how someone was fired for stealing toilet paper from the company.

I had a hard time processing what I was hearing. How could it be that this company took ethics so seriously that they would be willing to fire someone over something as silly as toilet paper, but still build their business on something as fantastically destructive as oil extraction? My assumption was obviously wrong – they did take ethics seriously – yet they had reached starkly different conclusions about what was ‘ethical’ than I had.

After the session was finished, I approached one of the presenters who had been particularly keen on highlighting his company’s stellar moral compass. I introduced myself and thanked him for the presentation, and then asked: given his company’s stalwart ethical sincerity, how does ExxonMobil deal with its near-constant bad press?

He said that they defend themselves when necessary, but that many of the accusations leveled against them (including that they deceived shareholders about climate change) were simply not true. “We’re an easy target,” he admitted, shrugging. But he insisted that his company always acted with integrity, and they always worked to deliver shareholder value.

I dropped off my resume, and wandered off, my mind buzzing. I was impressed by the sincerity of the presentation. I was disarmed by the company’s upfront acknowledgement of climate change, and endeared by the candor with which they talked about the company’s challenges. Except –  I couldn’t understand their ethics.

Now, I am not a moral absolutist. I do not believe that there is only one correct position to take on the ethics of the oil industry, nor am I arrogant enough to believe that my position is the most correct one. But I have also thought about it a fair amount, and have come to believe that promoting the use of fossil fuels as anything other than a very short-term solution is unethical. Most people who work at ExxonMobil, I must assume, have reached a different conclusion – but that does not mean that they are wrong.

What it does mean, however, is that they are looking at the world through a different lens. From what I could pick up, ExxonMobil’s corporate morality seems to be roughly equivalent to compliance, transparency, integrity, responsiveness to the market, and loyalty to the company’s shareholders. But from my perspective – heavily informed by my background in sustainability – corporate morality means striving to solve stakeholder problems, taking a long-term view, having a small footprint, and doing no harm. While the two visions aren’t mutually exclusive, they easily contradict each other.

Take, for example, market responsiveness, something that seems to be a core principle of ExxonMobil’s worldview. If you believe that market demand accurately represents need, then the world needs more oil. Through this ethical lens, producing oil is a virtuous act in and of itself; and doing it in such a way that benefits shareholders makes it even better. However, from my sustainability-oriented perspective, oil production directly violates the core tenants of taking a long-term view, having a small footprint, and doing no harm. And a focus on shareholders instead of stakeholders makes it even worse.

Our ethical lenses inform the choices that we make on a daily basis – the whole point of an ethical lens is to make it easy to separate right from wrong and thereby facilitate decision making. For example, my ethical ideal of a small footprint leads to me to try to carpool, recycle, and keep the A/C off. In the same way, the Exxon Mobil worldview that sees producing oil as virtuous likely informs most of the decisions made by the company and its employees. This seems especially true in a company that takes ethics so seriously. If the sustainability ethic clashes with the ExxonMobil ethic on issues of strategy, then it would likely clash on any number of lesser issues as well. I wonder, for example, if ExxonMobil recycles.

And this brings us back to my original question: could a company like ExxonMobil be reformed and brought into line with the principles of sustainability?

Maybe. But what last week’s presentation confirmed for me that the challenges would be immense. ExxonMobil’s ethics seem incompatible with sustainability, rendering it irrelevant at best, dangerous at worst. Convincing ExxonMobil to change course would entail not only making the economic case for sustainability, but the moral case as well. Turning the company toward sustainability would mean reshaping the way that they think about what is ‘right’ and the criteria that they use to make decisions. It would involve a fundamental change in the company’s values, doctrines, and decision-making criteria. ExxonMobil’s moral lens would have to change.

This is not a matter of strategy, it’s a matter of culture and worldview. The change couldn’t come from the boardroom, it would have to come from the hearts and minds of each of the employees. A shift in strategy, while difficult, is a possibility. But a shift in culture is another thing altogether.

A friend recently asked me the tough question: If ExxonMobil had given me a job that day, would I have taken it? I think I would have, just to give it a shot. But I don’t think I would have lasted long. I expect I would feel out of place, just as I did at the info session. From the first moment, I would have been swimming against the current, fighting against a culture that promoted actions that I thought unethical. It would be exhausting.

The better option, it seems to me, would be to invest my time, energy, and skills in building alternatives. Rather than making the oil industry sustainable, I should work on making the oil industry obsolete. Trying to change ExxonMobil involves combat, contention, and strife; and I probably would make some enemies. But there are plenty of people whose ethics and goals align with mine, within the renewable energy industry, among social entrepreneurs, and at environmental NGOs. Working with them would mean collaboration, support, and doing fulfilling work surrounded by allies. As individuals, we may not to be able to change companies like ExxonMobil – but as a group we can change the world around them. And when the world evolves into one where oil and gas are a thing of the past, ExxonMobil’s ethics will have to change – or the company will disappear.



This article is a reflection on a single interaction with a few representatives of a very large and diverse company. Although I feel that the conclusions I have reached about ExxonMobil’s culture are fair, I would be happy to be proved wrong. If you would like to talk, or would like to publish an opposing op-ed on Das Tor, please reach out to me at cjbarton@asu.edu

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