The Paradox of Corporate Cleanliness

In my capacity as a reporter, I've been to corporate headquarters all over the world. And I've found every one of them, without even a finicky exception, spotless. Nobody cleans house like DuPont, or GE, or Archer Daniels Midland's janitors.

We all know the pleasure of entering a corporate HQ as the soothing tones of canned Mantovani drift from hidden speakers. As you tread guiltily on floors blindingly polished, your gaze traces the height of a towering atrium toward a miraculously unsoiled skylight beneath which waves a grove of palm trees 80-feet tall. You pass by Calder mobiles and Brancusi sculptures. You can't help lingering at the pond beneath the fountain, where golden koi swim lazily among the nymphaea and water hyacinths.

Even the receptionist, behind her clutterless and paperless titanium island looks as though she has been steam-cleaned, chemically sanitized, sterilized, buffed, sanded, depilated, blow-dried, lacquered, and shrink-wrapped in silk by Donatella Versace.

Never, in such a corporate palace have I ever spied a vagrant paper-clip, a crumpled ball of paper, a stray Post-It, a candy wrapper, a half-empty coffee cup, a gum wad, a loose hair, or even a dust mote. I've never spotted a fly, or a cobweb, or — on all those acres of glass — a fingerprint.

The messiest corporate HQ I ever visited was a giant electric utility in Italy. But this was a private/public partnership. Even there, though building exteriors were a little run-down, the insides were scrubbed and sparkling. This company had a partner in Japan, Mitsui Petrochemical, where neither petroleum nor any chemical more powerful than Pine-Sol had ever soiled the corporate doorstep. Mitsui's cleanliness regimen was so fanatic you could perform surgery in the toilet stalls.

After these adventures, I've often wondered if these Big Companies see the irony — or hypocrisy? — in the devotion to keeping their nests so pathologically clean. For instance, you can probably run your finger along every windowsill at BP's home office in St. James Square, London, without picking up a smudge. But if you wade briefly through the mangroves in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, you still come away with oil-smell in your nostrils, covered with a film of deepwater crude and the remains of the wildlife suffocated there by BP six summers ago.

There's more. Ten of America's worst polluters are coal-burning power plants. But test the well conditioned air in these firms' home offices, and you'd detect — I promise — nary a micron of the tons of cyanide, sulphur, carbon, mercury, hydrochloric acid, dioxin, arsenic, nitrogen oxide, and plain old soot that their facilities waft upon the clueless millions who live downwind.

I can't help picturing how things might look if we were to match the housekeeping profile of each HQ with that corporation's pollution record. For some companies, this would require visitors to take a few survival precautions before setting foot in the lobby.

Picture me, arriving at such a company to interview the CEO. Security guards immediately deck me out in hip waders and fit me with surgical mask, goggles, latex gloves, flak jacket, and a hard hat. As I tiptoe on oil-slicked floors toward the reception desk, I'm careful to step around the razor-edged steel shavings, mine tailings, broken glass, mounds of garbage, heaps of asbestos, a small mountain of coal ash, and puddles of caustic chemicals that could eat right through my boots, shoes, socks, and feet. My mask filters a miasma so dense with carcinogens the air is purple and almost palpable. But I've been warned: the mask won't protect me if I hit one of the lobby's pockets of dioxide, monoxide, or methane.

All around, the walls and pillars are soot-covered. The palms are dead. Several culverts poking from the walls regularly cough up raw sewage that spreads across the lobby, carrying medical waste, contaminated needles, the odd dead fish, and, now and then, a luckless asphyxiated duck. The water in the lobby's grand aquarium has gone brown and lumpy. Its oil-slicked former fish float shapelessly. In the pond beneath the clogged fountain, the koi, now faded from gold to mucus-yellow, have fared no better. Their bodies lap against the shore while sinister bubbles rise up from the bottom and burst flatulently on the gummy gray surface. The water lilies are platforms of black slime.

The receptionist, wearing an orange hazmat suit, breathes compressed air from tanks on her back. Her desk, banked with washed-up fish and oily waterfowl, is streaked with unnatural stains and reeks of decomposition. Lying unnoticed on the reception desk, beside a bouquet of wilted flowers, is a deceased penguin.

Of course, this appalling scene will never be. As corporations and their political puppets continue to deny the price of pollution, and as the Earth degenerates into an overheated orb wreathed in industrial scum and toxic exhaust, we can count on even our most shameless polluters to keep up appearances. They will always — bless their hygienic hearts — occupy spotless, fragrant, climate-controlled offices in immaculate glass towers, untouched by the filth down here.

And if we wipe our feet on the doormat, they might even let us visit.

2 comments on “The Paradox of Corporate Cleanliness

  1. prabhakar_deosthali
    August 14, 2012

    Such paradox of cleanliness is observed in everybody's house, each and every hotel, every shopping mall . So why single out the corporate houses?

    Poke into the kitchen & store of any posh hotel and there will be all the clutter around with lots of noises , people shouting, while the reception lobby has has an impeecable look with soft music and cushy chairs and a charming lady at the reception desk.

    Poke into the bedroom of any house and there will be unkept beds, heap of clothes stashed somehow in the wardrobe, shopping bags and what not, while the hall is neatly arranged furniture, showcasing all kind of souveniors and all that.

    What is wrong with the corporates creating a presentable image of themselves while the workers at their factories have to toil in harsh and unfriendly environments?

    I don't see what point the reporter is trying to make.




  2. stochastic excursion
    August 15, 2012

    Nobody likes to disparage anybody's business.  I think though that the more grievous the malfeasance of a company, the more ironic their spotless image is.

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