Retired retail executive Richard Goldman was astonished when he heard about the $27 billion pollution lawsuit against Chevron Corp. in Ecuador.
Astonished at the soil and water contamination surrounding Ecuador's oil fields. And astonished that he'd never heard of it before.
So Goldman, one of the founders of the Men's Wearhouse clothing chain, has created a nonprofit group that will use social-networking tools to spread word of the case and put pressure on Chevron.
The group, Ethos Alliance, will ask visitors to its Web site to tell others about the issue, hoping that viral communication via the Internet will reach people that news stories about the suit haven't.
The site will raise money for humanitarian relief projects in Ecuador's oil patch, encouraging visitors to donate $5 apiece to build a water treatment plant and buy medicine for a health clinic. The Web site, www.ethosalliance.org , goes online today.
Ethos also will urge Chevron to settle the long-running lawsuit, something the San Ramon company has vowed not to do. The suit was first filed against Texaco, which pumped oil in Ecuador from 1964 to 1992, and Chevron inherited the suit when it bought Texaco in 2001.
Issues beyond Chevron
Ethos plans to tackle other issues of corporate responsibility in the future, uniting the alliance's online members with businesses willing to join the cause. But for now, its focus is squarely on Chevron.
"In the ideal world, this suit gets settled, and Chevron walks away as the pillar of social responsibility," Goldman said. "They'd be the company everyone else wants to be."
Whether Ethos will have an effect on the lawsuit is an open question.
Goldman doesn't want Chevron to perceive Ethos as part of the opposition. But he first heard of the issue when he let friends throw a party in his Tiburon home for several of the lawyers suing Chevron. Goldman also said Ethos won't try to pressure Petroecuador - the state-run oil company that now operates the oil fields - into cleaning up the contamination in eastern Ecuador, a region known as the Oriente. Chevron insists the pollution is Petroecuador's responsibility.
"We would welcome a constructive conversation with Mr. Goldman about the humanitarian issues facing the people of the Oriente," said Dave Samson, Chevron's general manager of public affairs. "We agree that they confront real hardships due to Petroecuador's horrendous environmental record and their abandonment by the government of Ecuador. Unfortunately, Mr. Goldman's humanitarian campaign is misdirected and should be aimed at the (Ecuadoran) government and its national oil company."
Ethos is the latest example of social or political causes using social networking to increase their reach. Earlier this year, a one-day fundraising effort organized via Twitter collected $250,000 for drinking water projects in the developing world. The event was called the 2009 Twestival, a combination of "Twitter" and "festival."
"They have tremendous uptake if they can resonate with the audience that spreads things by word of mouth," said Jeremiah Owyang, a social media analyst with the Altimeter Group. He added that it's hard to know which campaigns will take off and which won't.
"That's the magic everyone's trying to figure out," Owyang said.
To get started, Ethos has sent two employees on a road trip between the Bay Area and Miami, stopping at colleges along the way to tell people about the group and the Ecuador lawsuit. Students visiting the Web site are encouraged to start Ethos chapters on their campuses.
'They'll have to settle'
Goldman said letting the lawsuit drag on merely prolongs the suffering of people who don't have access to clean water or soil. Chevron, he said, should focus on the humanitarian needs and settle.
"This suit will never go away," he said. "Chevron knows that. At some point, they'll have to settle."