Northumbria BH Group Seminar Series returns

Welcome back everyone, it is 2022, and who knows what the new year will bring us – normality? more variants? We’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, Northumbria University’s Business History Group is hosting another event in their seminar series on Teams. If you’d like to join, please contact Dr Ian Jones [ ian.g.jones [at] northumbria.ac.uk].

Business History Group Seminar Series (2021-22) 

Wednesday 19th January 2022, 15.00 – 16.00 

MS Teams 

Medical Risks vs. Financial Rewards: Corporate Social Responsibility in the Global Asbestos Trade, 1930-1977 

Dr Jessica van Horssen, Leeds Beckett University.  

The history of Corporate Social Responsibility is subject of growing interest for business historians. The research of environmental and business historians as William Cronon and Pierre Desrochers have shown that the decisions of industry leaders have both immediate and long-term local and global effects. With this paper, I will examine the process of decision-making regarding occupational health within the Canadian asbestos trade and show how the corporate social responsibility practiced by industry heads at the local level had much wider effects, including the continuing belief in the safety of asbestos, and the demonization of competitors along racial and political lines. 

Picture supplied by Northumbria Business History Group & Dr van Horssen.

Industry leaders knew asbestos was dangerous as early as 1924, but rather than inspire corporate caution, this knowledge was spun to maximize profits while delaying the widespread communication of the risks associated with the mineral. The American Johns-Manville Company was instrumental in this process, as it owned the largest chrysotile asbestos mine in the world, in the town of Asbestos, Canada, and was responsible for turning a potential corporate disaster into an advantage with the “ABC defence.” The “ABC” in this plan referred to “anything but chrysotile,” the particular type of asbestos found in Canada, meaning that asbestos was indeed dangerous, but only when it came from the competition: asbestos from southern Africa was blue, rather than the Canadian white, and therefore branded much more toxic, and asbestos from the Soviet Union, although still white, was tainted communist red at the height of the Cold War, and thus something to be avoided. 

The decision to champion Canadian asbestos over its competition on the grounds of safety obscured the industrial and public understanding of the risks associated with the mineral. It also allowed companies like Johns-Manville to manipulate medical evidence to prove their claims correct, and meant that French-Canadian workers in communities like Asbestos, were treated as laboratory mice, monitored and harvested so companies could better understand the progression of disease. 

This paper will explore this history while asking questions about corporate social responsibility in single-resource communities and global resource trades. In doing so, I will address key themes in Business History within a transnational context. I will also contribute to the dialogue on decision makers and decision making, while addressing key themes of power, complacency, and control. 

Jessica van Horssen is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Cultural Studies and Humanities at Leeds Beckett University. Her research focuses on the history of environmental health in North America and the wider world, highlighting the connections between modernity and toxicity in bodies of land, human bodies and the body politic. Van Horssen’s first book, A Town Called Asbestos: Environmental Contamination, Health and Resilience in a Resources Community (University of British Columbia Press) was published in 2016 and her work has been published in Urban History, Labour/Le Travail, and the Economic History Yearbook. Van Horssen has also worked to raise awareness of contemporary environmental issues, sailing around the UK in 2017 as part of the eXXpedition Round Britain to test coastal waters for plastics contamination, and organising a time travel experience at the Edinburgh Fringe to encourage the public to historicise current pollution levels. 

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