Four years ago yesterday, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 men and spilling thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf. This Thursday is the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers.
What has happened in the time since these disasters? BP was barred from drilling in U.S. deepwater—until last month. Western clothing brands are upgrading Bangladeshi factories, but the fundamentals of their business haven’t changed: Brands outsource production to factories serving multiple clients in low-wage, low-regulation countries (not just Bangladesh).
The lack of fundamental change in these industries—and others, such as financial services after the 2008 crisis—suggests disasters like these are bound to happen again.
Indeed, every corporate crisis evokes a sense of déjà vu. The Rana Plaza catastrophe bore echoes of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The unfolding story of General Motors’ faulty ignition switches brings back 1970s memories of the Ford Pinto, whose infamously fire-prone fuel tanks went unfixed because upgrading them would have cost more than the $200,000 Ford set for a human life.
Why does the corporate world fail to learn from its tragic past? From 1999 to 2008, I worked for BP in Indonesia, China, and at the company’s London headquarters. It was my job to assess and mitigate the social and human rights risks to communities living near major BP projects, a role that existed because the executives I worked with understood that what was good for those communities was good for our business. I did innovative, progressive work bringing in experts and setting up partnerships and programs to benefit contract workers and neighbors of big BP projects in the developing world. But, obviously, I did not manage to prevent the Deepwater Horizon disaster, or the 2005 explosion of a BP refinery in Texas City that killed 15 people and injured many more.