After Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, company after company worldwide announced intentions to leave the market. Some had larger toeholds than others, but public pressure eventually forced hundreds to make a clean break, according to the list maintained by Yale School of Management professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld.
A new investigation released Tuesday, however, asserts that many companies that pledged to stop doing business in Russia have not fully withdrawn.
The report, by a British organization called Moral Rating Agency founded in the invasion’s aftermath, evaluated the world’s top 200 companies. Of the 114 active in Russia when Ukraine was invaded, the organization says only seven companies (6%) have exited fully. Forty-four (39%)—many of them based in China—made no announcement at all.
But 63 (55%) fell somewhere in between, withdrawing in part but not completely, making them the target of MRA’s report. “Many of them claim they have cut ties with Russia but in fact continue with some activities or fail to follow through with promises,” the group says, a practice it refers to as “moralwashing.”
For its investigation, the organization graded companies on a fairly withering scale. It criticized companies that had retained buildings and employees to expedite potential reentry into the market; those that carved out “humanitarian” exceptions for certain products (such as Nestlé and PepsiCo continuing to sell milk); as well as those that vowed to sell assets or suspend activities but did so without giving any time frame.
Terming these actions “loopholes,” MRA identified one more category of offenders: companies that publicly list the operations they are suspending but conveniently omit easily overlooked activities that could be costly to abandon. One example it cites is Apple’s materials sourcing. In March, noting it was “join[ing] all those around the world who are calling for peace,” Apple got plaudits for pausing product sales and even turning off Apple Pay—a move that earned it a class-action lawsuit from Russian consumers.
MRA’s report dings Apple for saying it had “paused” product sales, essentially leaving the door open to reenter the Russian market. The report also alleges Apple omitted any promise to cease imports of three rare metals used to manufacture its products—gold, tungsten, and tantalum. Apple disclosed in a December 2021 SEC filing that it was buying gold from five Russian plants, tungsten from four plants, and tantalum from one plant.
An Apple spokesperson told Fast Company the company doesn’t currently import these metals. However, MRA’s position is that to be “out” of Russia, Apple needs to publicly disclose that it stopped buying these metals, when it ceased operations, and for how long these withdrawals will be in place. “Our ratings are based on withdrawals being disclosed,” MRA founder Mark Dixon tells Fast Company. “We can’t give them credit in a rating if it isn’t publicly disclosed.”
Another company that MRA puts in the gray column is Walt Disney, which it claims still runs a port in St. Petersburg for its cruise line, and is also still paying employee salaries—and, therefore, taxes to the Russian government. Citing Russia’s “unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” Disney said in early March that it was suspending all business there. It already had halted new film releases the previous week, and claimed that additional steps were being taken to shut down remaining operations.
“This includes content and product licensing, Disney Cruise Line activities, National Geographic magazine and tours, local content productions, and linear channels,” Disney told the media. Certain business activities could be stopped immediately, the company explained, but others would take time “given contractual complexities.” Examples were TV channels and some content and product licensing. It paused everyday use of the Saint Petersburg cruise port, but added that “we remain committed to our dedicated colleagues in Russia, who will remain employed.” MRA calls Disney a “Confused Humanitarian” for “putting Russian employees wellbeing ahead of undermining the Russian economy with a proper boycott.” Disney tells Fast Company that it disputes MRA’s report.
Other companies argued since day one that unwinding from Russia would take time. Banks such as Citigroup and Goldman Sachs committed to withdrawing without timetables, but MRA doesn’t accept this as an excuse. Its report notes that Citigroup and Goldman may have stopped taking on new customers, but both companies continue to actively conduct business with the ones they had before the invasion. Citigroup told Fast Company that it is continuing to reduce remaining operations in Russia, but “that due to the nature of banking and financial services operations, this decision will take time to execute.” (Goldman didn’t respond to an inquiry.)
Whatever the case, MRA is unsympathetic to companies that continue operating in Russia, and the ones its campaign seeks to apply the most pressure to are companies that have pledged to leave and simply haven’t. Dixon says that “Russia is such a hot potato that companies are ‘moralwashing’ to hide their inaction or incomplete action,” adding that when they admit they haven’t withdrawn fully, “they are masterful at coming up with excuses. I wish they would spend as much energy leaving Russia completely as they spend pretending that they already have.”
This story has been updated to include comments from Apple and Disney, and to clarify their ratings in MRA’s report.