From Oxycontin to Fast Food: The Ethics of Selling Not-Too-Much

Business is about sales. From a business point of view, your mission is to make a product that people want, and to sell a lot of it. The drive to sell a lot is what motivates cleverness in product design, efficiency in production, and consumer-friendly low prices.

Sure, the idea of selling more-more-more has its critics. There’s a strain of anti-consumerism that sees the drive to sell (and hence buy) more as the root of all evil. And certainly in some product categories, maximizing the selling-and-buying cycle can have pretty bad environmental effects.

But in general, it’s hard to tell a businessperson, with a straight face, that they’re ethically obligated not to sell so much stuff. After all, that’s their function.

There are, however, exceptions, cases in which selling more is so obviously socially destructive that it becomes morally mandatory to try to maybe sell a little less.

See, for example, this must-read piece by Mike Mariani in the Pacific Standard, called “Poison Pill: How the American opiate epidemic was started by one pharmaceutical company.” It’s the story of how Purdue Pharma, maker of the opioid analgesic Oxycontin, used innovative marketing strategies to turn the painkiller into a $100-million commercial success, and how the drug not coincidentally became the darling of millions of addicts. Part of that story is about unethical (and illegal) marketing methods. But the question of methods can’t be separated entirely from the question of goals. And the goal, here, is sales — in particular, maximizing sales. But when you maximize sales of a drug like Oxy, you inevitably encourage a greater amount of “leakage” of the drug from the stream of legitimate uses into the realm of addiction and criminality.

This is clearly an extreme case. Oxycontin is a potent narcotic, subject to strict legal controls for good reasons. Taken incorrectly, it can ruin your life or even kill you, and for that reason distribution channels are limited.But it’s worth noting that this is not a bad product. Used properly, it’s a godsend.

But oxy is far from the only product that is good when used properly, but dangerous when used incorrectly. Consider the Big Mac. Or 7-Eleven’s Big Gulp. Or Coca Cola. Each of those is harmless when consumed the way any reasonable person would consume them, i.e., relatively seldom. A single Coke — or even a Big Gulp-sized Coke, just isn’t going to hurt you. So, it would seem no one is doing anything wrong by selling you one. Or even two. Or even several.

Now, when consumed in excess, both Coke and Big Macs can have, shall we say, a negative impact on your health. But it’s hard to imagine telling the cashier at minimum-wage earning clerk at McDonald’s or 7-Eleven that they’re obligated to cut customers off after they’ve had “one too many.” And besides, with regards to grownups, at least, consumers are allowed to make their own mistakes, even at the risk of significant personal injury. Hey, that’s the price of freedom.

But there’s also the question of social impact. Coke and Big Macs aren’t just having an impact on individuals; they (along with lots of other high-sugar fast foods and snack foods) are implicated in the obesity epidemics currently plaguing so many industrialized countries. From a social point of view, selling more isn’t better. And from the perspective of net sales, it’s slightly more plausible to think that a company might contemplate exercising some restraint.

Of course, it’s all too easy to think that such companies should sell less. But it’s much harder to specify how much less, and how they should do it. Indeed, it’s hard even to enunciate what the relevant moral principle would look like. Go ahead and sell, sell, sell, but only up to…what point?

I don’t have a solution to suggest here. My point is just that the tragic story of oxycontin is merely a grotesquely extreme example of a larger problem, namely how to do business responsibly when selling a product that is at once both good and evil.

Does the punishment really fit SNC-Lavalin’s alleged crimes?

News that Canadian engineering giant SCN Lavalin is facing new criminal charges caused a stir last week, not least because of the penalties that are on the table. The fraud and corruption charges spring from the company’s dealings in Libya. And if convicted, in addition to any other penalties handed out the company could be barred, for 10 years, from competing for contracts with the Government of Canada — a category of contracts that make up an important element of the company’s income.

Jacques Daoust, economy minister for Quebec (where SNC is based) thinks that rule is too harsh, and was quoted as saying, “In 10 years a company might not be the same. Everything can change. And in the case of SNC, they’ve decided to make drastic changes already over a short time…”

But the appropriateness of the punishment depends in part on what your goal is in punishing in the first place.

Some will say that we need harsh penalties as a deterrent. That is, if we punish wrongdoing (including corporate wrongdoing), wrongdoers should be less likely to repeat their offences, and other potential wrongdoers are likely to think twice before stepping out of line. But so far criminologists have been unable to find support for the claim that deterrence actually works. It defies our intuitive understanding of human motivation, but it’s true: we simply don’t have clear evidence (despite having looked for it) that the threat of punishments deters corporate crime.

Another possibility is that punishment is intended to inspire reform. This is presumably what Daoust has in mind: having already suffered significant legal penalties, SNC Lavalin has engaged in a process of reforming itself, making internal changes that (hopefully) will change the organization’s character and make it less likely to offend in future. Will it work? Who knows? But reforming a corporation may be more plausible than reforming a human criminal: after all, you can literally re-engineer a corporation to change the way it makes decisions, but you we don’t know how to do that to a human (and if we could it likely wouldn’t be ethical). And if, as Daoust seems to imply, the key reforms have already been implemented, a prohibition on federal contracts would be baldly punitive, a form of punishment for its own sake.

And to be sure, some will cheer for purely punitive actions. Denunciation — the community, through legal mechanisms, effectively shouting “No!” in the face of wrongdoing — is another of the ‘classical’ justifications for punishment. But in engaging is such denunciation, the Canadian government might be ‘cutting off its nose to spite its face,’ as the saying goes. Because by barring SNC for competing for contracts, just for the pure punitive joy of it, the government would also thereby be cutting itself off from a large, competent, Canadian engineering contractor.

This leaves one possibility, one rationale that would make sense of debarring SNC, in addition to whatever other penalties the company and its officers might suffer. The other classical rationale for punishment — a rationale usually reserved for explaining the value of incarceration — is an interest in removing offenders from settings in which they would be able to repeat their crimes. Criminologists refer to this as incapacitation. When you put the child molester in jail, he no longer has access to children and hence can no longer molest them. Put him away for 20 years, and those are 20 years during which he will molest zero children. By parallel, if you forbid a company from competing for government contracts for 10 years, those are 10 years during which they will engage in precisely zero instances of attempted bribery or other acts of corruption, at least with regard to bribery or corruption of Canadian officials.

Why did Louis CK price his latest video at just $5? Why leave money on the table?

As the entire universe probably knows by now, Louis CK released his latest hour-long comedy special, “Live at the Comedy Store,” a couple of weeks ago.

His business model—the distribution mechanism for the video—is by now familiar. As with his previous special, he’s selling this one as a video that can be downloaded via his own website. Not on iTunes, not on Amazon. Just his own website. And the one-hour video is priced not at the $9.99 or $18.99 that the pricing savants at iTunes or Amazon would surely have insisted upon, but at the low, low price of $5.

All of this is pretty amazing. Why, in particular, the $5 price tag? After all, the comedian surely could have charged more, and made more money for himself in the process. Yes, as price goes up, demand goes down, generally. And probably there really are some people who would be willing to pay $5 but unwilling to pay, say, $10. So keeping the price low let demand rise. And indeed this video is apparently selling better than the previous one. But if CK had opted to choose more — even substantially more — relatively few fans would be unable or unwilling to afford the difference (and even fewer such people who have the requisite internet connection in the first place). I’d wager that he could literally have doubled his price and not reduced demand by anything close to enough to offset the gains. But I’ll leave such speculation to the marketing gurus out there. Suffice it to say that as these things go, $5 is a surprising bargain.

So CK presumably had an actual choice about how to price his special, his ‘product.’ Why choose such a low price?

Some will suggest that what’s really going on is something cynically clever, perhaps an attempt to use low prices as a way to build his brand or his market share? Perhaps. But CK’s brand could hardly be bigger. If you hadn’t already heard of Louis CK, and if you weren’t already an ardent admirer, it’s unlikely that being able to access what is by all accounts his least-polished special to date would result in your sudden awareness and conversion.

Another possibility was that CK’s pricing was effectively an act of charity. He “left money on the table,” as the saying goes, and that money stayed in the pockets of his fans. And for those fans (however many there are) who could not have afforded to pay $10 for the video, his pricing effectively amounted to gifting them with access that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.

In other words, this rich entertainer (according to some reports CK is worth over $25 million) just donated a little bit of money to every single person who downloaded his special.

Of course, whether he was thinking of it that way when he chose that price is impossible to tell. Who knows what was going on in that head? This is a good illustration of an age-old debate about what it is that really matters, ethically: outcomes or intentions. In this case, it’s impossible to know what CK intended, but it’s much easier — for fans of comedy and fans of charity — to praise the outcome.

Canada should follow New York’s crackdown on bogus herbal remedies

This is good news for consumers, but bad news for makers and sellers of herbal supplements. The New York State attorney general’s office accusing major retailers of selling. The office issued a series of cease and desist orders on Monday, targeting herbal supplements that, according to genetic tests, don’t contain what they claim to and often contained ingredients that don’t appear on the label. Walgreens, Walmart, and Target, along with supplement and vitamin retailer GNC, have been ordered to stop selling “adulterated and/or mislabeled” herbal dietary supplements, and given one week to produce a small mountain of information regarding the methods by which those products are manufactured and tested.

The AG’s investigation was apparently spurred by a 2013 article in the New York Times that cited a University of Guelph study that used genetic analysis to examine various commercial herbal remedies. That study found a striking disparity between what was on the label and what was actually in the bottle. (I wrote about the study here.)

As I wrote back in 2013, the findings of the Guelph study (and now the findings of the New York attorney general) suggest a quality control problem at best, and outright fraud at worst.

As it happens, I gave a presentation last week (with pharmacist and blogger Scott Gavura) on the ethics of marketing complementary and alternative medicines, including things like herbal supplements. You can see the webcast here. One of the key points we made involves the difference between marketing, say, a homeopathic ‘remedy’, which is utterly incapable of having any biological effect because it literally lacks any active ingredient, and marketing herbal products, a category of products which can in some cases be quite potent, but which can be highly variable in content, concentration, and labelling, not to mention the extent to which their effects and side effects have been verified. Marketing the former is unforgivable: you have to be either a huckster or willfully ignorant to market homeopathy as if it actually works. But the ethics of marketing herbal products is a trickier thing.

The heart of the ethical problem here is that herbal supplements are what economists call a “credence good” — that is, a good that most consumers aren’t qualified to evaluate. The only thing you can do, as a consumer who buys an herbal supplement, is rely upon the word of the manufacturer who claims that those pills really do contain ginkgo biloba or garlic or whatever. In other words, it requires trust.

And that trust could in principle be supported in two things, two forces that could make it more likely that those product labels would tell you the truth. The first is the ethics of the manufacturer. Most people are basically honest, so most-of-us-most-of-the-time trust the makers of the goods we consume, and that works out just fine. But as a backup, we have commercial law and various regulations to give makers and sellers of products good reason, from a self-interested point of view, to treat consumers well.

Alas, the herbal supplement industry has demonstrated that it cannot be trusted. So it’s a good thing that the NY state attorney general is stepping in to protect consumers.

Now if only Canadian regulatory and law enforcement agencies would follow suit.

What is the true purpose of corporations?

janitor and mop

Illustration: Susan MacDonald

What’s the purpose of a corporation? Or, somewhat more abstractly, what’s the purpose of corporations in general?

That question is the topic of a big academic literature, but the question itself is far from academic. In fact, it has enormous practical importance. Take, for instance, the recent news that Target is leaving Canada, news that puts a rather fine point on the question.

Surely for the top executives (and presumably the Board) at Target, the decision to pull out of Canada was a tough one. But one suspects it was also entirely a ‘business’ decision — that is, one driven entirely by bottom-line considerations. CEO Brian Cornell pointed out, as part of the rationale for pulling out of Canada, that projections indicated that, if the company stayed in Canada, Target Canada would not expect to be profitable until 2021. Presumably shareholders were simply not going to put up with that. And from a fairly standard view about the purpose of the corporation, the wishes of shareholders matter a great deal. After all, or so the story goes, the entire purpose of a corporation is to make money for shareholders.

But of course, shareholders aren’t the only interested parties in this story. Consumers, too, have a stake. And despite the fact that many Canadians were sorely disappointed in Target’s initial efforts, many held out hope that Target Canada would eventually live up to the standards of their US counterparts, stores that are in fact a favourite cross-border shopping destination.

But among various stakeholder groups, the move is perhaps felt most acutely by Target Canada’s employees. Pulling out of Canada means Target is closing 133 stores and eliminating 17,600 jobs. For employees, the company was a source of jobs — jobs ranging from cashier to admin assistant to fairly senior executive posts. To the holders of those jobs, Target was a valued employer — a way to feed a family and pay the bills and maybe save for a vacation.

So now ask, again, what’s the purpose of a corporation? We’ve mentioned already the shareholder-wealth-building view. A more modern, critical view is to say that the purpose of a corporation is something more than the pursuit of shareholder wealth. Corporations, on this view, have a higher purpose as part of a community. The corporation has a social role, and that role goes far beyond attending to the interests of shareholders. Adherents of this view are indeed typically indignant at the very thought that anyone could think that corporations have so lowly a purpose as to merely make money.

And those critics are right, at least in part. It really is foolish to think that the purpose of a corporation is to make money. But that’s only because it’s foolish to think that corporations have purposes at all. That is, it’s foolish to think of a large, multifaceted organization as having a single, unitary “purpose” in the universe, rather than thinking of it as serving many purposes for many interested parties. Arguing over what a corporation is “really for” — building shareholder value? making products to make people happy? providing jobs? etc. — is a fool’s errand.

There are of course exceptions. If an individual or small group files the paperwork to form a corporation to serve some single, stated purpose, then it’s probably fair to say that that is what the corporation’s purpose is. But that’s seldom what’s at stake, at least as far as this debate goes. When you’re talking about a widely-held, multibillion dollar corporation like Target, talk of the organization’s “real purpose” just sounds silly.

But the fact that the corporation is many things to many people doesn’t mean that everyone is bound to consider all of those purposes, all of the time.

To see what I mean, consider a different, parallel question. What is the purpose of a job? Say, your job. If we think of your job as an abstract thing — a position in the marketplace that happens to be filled by you — what is its purpose? Does that question even make sense? You’ve got the job, and it (hopefully) helps you achieve your goals. How you should behave yourself in the course of that job, in pursuit of those goals, is a question of ethics. And that question is much more enlightening than some grand question about purposes.

American Apparel’s New Code of Ethics: A Good Start

Illustration: Susan MacDonald

Illustration: Susan MacDonald

Retailer American Apparel has announced a new code of ethics. The move comes, not coincidentally, just a month after the board sacked controversial CEO and founder Dov Charney. Charney had been at the centre of a string of employee sexual harassment suits.

And the new code contains — again, not coincidentally — a substantial section on sexual harassment.

The move by AA to beef up its Code is an opportunity to emphasize several key points about the role and significance of a Code of Ethics in general.

The first point has to do with the insufficiency of a code, in spite of the admitted necessity of having one. A company the size of AA can’t not have a code. Having one is effectively ‘table stakes,’ at this point, and in some jurisdictions it’s legally required. But AA’s board also shouldn’t dream for a second that simply having a new code is going to fix the company’s problems, any more than simply removing Charney from the helm will do so.

What the company surely needs is a change in culture. Charney’s departure will surely help — tone at the top, etc., etc. — but it likely won’t be enough. Charney has surely left his imprint on the corporate culture, and it will take time for that to change. A new code may serve as a focal point for such change, but only if the code is noticed and taken to heart. And that will only happen if sufficient training takes place. In other words, AA needs to not do what too many organizations do: simply post the new code on the wall. Even sending each employee a copy and “requiring” them to read it won’t be enough.

The final point has to do with the relationship between ethics and the law. As should be obvious, ethics and the law are not identical. What’s legal isn’t always ethical, and vice versa. An ethics code typically tries to bridge the gap: they tell employees what’s ethically required, but they also typically threaten a penalty, most often termination of employment. Further AA’s code effectively advises employees to think of the code as a legal document:

“…we ask that if you have questions, ask them; if you have ethical concerns, raise them; if you believe something to be suspicious or inconsistent with the Company’s best interests, report it to the General Counsel…” [or to contact the company’s outside ethics hotline provider].

That’s fine, but given the importance of culture, it’s important that the legal implications of a code not dominate. And unfortunately, AA’s code was pretty clearly written by a team of lawyers. The wording is often legalistic. That’s not surprising. Ethics policies often are. The most we can hope is that the ethics training that should accompany the code’s launch focuses on the values that underpin the code, not on the punishment that could result form its violations.

So is American Apparel’s new code good news? Absolutely. Are the company’s worries over? Far from it.

Uber is built on trust. Now it needs to maintain it: Chris MacDonald

Illustration: Susan MacDonald

Illustration by Susan MacDonald

Uber isn’t in the taxi business. It’s not even in the tech business. It’s in the “trust” business. That is, it’s in the business of building trust between strangers. And if it can’t figure out how to do that, it will fail.

Uber’s “UberX” program hit a horrifying bump in the road this week, as one of its drivers in Delhi allegedly raped a female passenger. The incident earned the company a complete ban throughout the Delhi region, and is sure to send shockwaves through a much broader global community of users and potential users of UberX.

For all its success, Uber has had plenty of troubles. It’s been accused of anti-competitive behaviours. It’s been accused of privacy violations. Some of these problems can be overcome through smarter use of technology — and after all, that’s what Uber is supposed to be good at. But it’s important to see that the key to Uber’s success isn’t its mobile app. It’s the ability to get strangers to trust each other. If Uber wants to keep its recent $40 billion valuation, it’s going to have to figure that out.

Because commerce — all commerce — relies upon trust.

When I hop into a taxi, I’m not just getting a ride to a destination. I’m getting an exchange of trust. Think about it: I’m getting into a car with a stranger. But the branding of the cab company, plus the municipal licensing, give me some assurance that a) I’m going to get where I ask to go; b) I’ll arrive there alive; and c) I’ll be given the correct change even if I fail to count it. Uber got big by leveraging that pre-existing trust that most of us have in taxis.

The key question, then, is whether Uber will be able to sustain that trust.

I should add that it’s not just about customers. Trust has to be built and maintained with drivers, too. I spoke to one Uber driver recently who said that some drivers have left Uber because of how the company has treated them. He suggested such drivers feel that in introducing UberX, the company has effectively turned its back on the professional drivers that built the brand. Maybe the company doesn’t care about the professional drivers — maybe its long game lies with UberX. But if informed and experienced professional drivers don’t trust Uber, it’s hard to see how amateurs are going to do so.

So, Uber needs two things in order to build and maintain trust.

First, it needs to make smarter use of the technology at its fingertips. Some of that is already in place — simple, trustworthy financial transactions are clearly a key component of the company’s success to date. But it also needs to assure users that, for example, the company can be trusted with the vast amounts of data it gathers on their travel behaviour. Finally, the company needs not just the technical infrastructure of trust, it needs to engage in the behaviour that will signal to users that the company is here to stay, here to be trusted, here to be a reliable and trustworthy service provider for the long run.

Cops Who Kill and the Limits of Self-Regulation

The grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown. Then a grand jury in New York failed to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the choking death of Eric Garner.

This isn’t just a matter of two high-profile cases in a row. Generally, grand juries are reluctant to indict cops. Not just reluctant overall, but comparatively reluctant. Because generally, grand juries do indict the people brought before them. Indeed, statistically, it is incredibly uncommon for grand juries to fail to indict. In 2010 (the most recent year for which data exists) U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 cases, and failed to get indictments in just 11 of those cases. But grand juries don’t like to indict cops.

And there’s a certain logic to that reluctance. Police officers generally have a tough job. They are issued deadly weapons and asked to insert themselves into situations that the rest of us want desperately to avoid. This clearly requires a lot of situation-specific judgment. Most outsiders don’t understand the principles of modern policing, nor the challenges presented by life “on the street.” It’s easy to imagine — even absent any conspiracy theory and minus any accusations of racism — why a grand jury, and the prosecutor that guides it, might be reluctant to indict a cop.

This reluctance is part of a general pattern in society. There are circumstances in which outsiders generally are and generally should be incredibly reluctant to judge. Courts are generally quite reluctant, for example, to second-guess the work of licensed professionals. A court won’t typically tell a surgeon she’s done sloppy work, even if the patient died, unless credible expert witnesses — namely other surgeons — swear that the surgery didn’t meet their profession’s own standards. What if those standards are themselves flawed? Here, too, courts are generally reluctant to intervene. Professions like medicine, nursing, and engineering are effectively given monopolies over fields of practice because (or so the story goes) their work is so complex, and requires such nuanced judgment, that only the members of the profession itself are qualified to set standards and to adjudicate violations.

This reticence to judge extends to the business world, too. Under the “business judgment rule”, courts (in Canada, the US, the UK, and elsewhere) are generally reluctant to tell a corporation’s board of directors that they’ve failed in their duty of care vis-a-vis shareholders, because the court lacks the competency to do so. So long as the board is found to have taken suitable care in their decision making process, the substance of their decision will not be second-guessed.

But there’s a proviso, here, a limit. Reluctance to judge from the outside doesn’t imply a license to kill, either figuratively or literally. The set of circumstances in which outsiders should be reluctant to judge the behaviour of a powerful occupational group is pretty strictly limited to circumstances in which the members of that group do a good job of monitoring their own behaviour and enforcing standards that serve the public well.

This means that any group — any group — that wants to be left to set its own standards, and to be largely free from external scrutiny, needs to work incredibly hard to set and enforce suitable standards internally. There are lots of ways of doing that, including codes of conduct, training, mentoring, and so on. Also useful is a general obligation on the part of members of the profession to call out other members who violate the rules. But tight self-regulation is the quid pro quo. Fail at that mission, and you are going to find the public sticking its nose in. This applies to boards who want to be free from meddling shareholders, accountants who resent intrusive financial regulations like those embodied in Sarbanes-Oxley, and cops who think the public just doesn’t understand.

Making ethical decisions at work is easy. Speaking up is harder

Speaking up is hard. Going against the grain when the team’s mind is made up is harder. And ‘speaking truth to power’ — especially when ‘power’ means someone who can end your career — is harder still. But speaking up is important. Sometimes, it is absolutely morally required. Other times, it might be strictly optional but is a way to demonstrate true leadership. It’s an important skill, and a commitment worth fostering.

On November 24, the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program (of which I’m director) had the pleasure of hosting Mary Gentile, a professor at Babson College and author of the book, Giving Voice to Values. The key message of Gentile’s presentation, and of her book, is that the key ethical skill that business students and corporate employees need to foster is not skill at making ethical decisions, but skill at speaking up. Quite often we know the right thing to do, but have trouble doing it. When the boss wants us to fudge the numbers, or when the team decides to go with a plan that involves playing fast-and-loose with ethical obligations to a client, the problem generally isn’t with figuring out what’s right. The challenge lies in finding the right way, in terms of interpersonal and organizational dynamics, to make it happen.

As we’ve seen from the Jian Ghomeshi affair, speaking up isn’t hard only within organizations. But certain facets of organizational life make speaking up especially challenging. Consider, for starters, the emphasis that every organization — every organization — puts on loyalty. That emphasis is a matter of necessity. You can’t have a well-functioning company without employees who feel some level of dedication to the corporate mission, and you can’t even have an effective team if all the members of that team don’t, to some extent, put the interests and goals of the team above their own. From an organizational point of view, a certain amount of group-think is a feature, not a bug. But loyalty can too easily slide into a herd mentality, when people’s brains shut off and they nod their heads out of habit, rather than true agreement. The result can be disastrous.

In her Giving Voice to Values (GVV) curriculum, much of which is available for free online, and which has been adopted by literally hundreds of business schools and corporations across the globe, Gentile emphasizes practical exercises that build participant’s skill and ability to formulate an effective ‘script’ for speaking up, and to deliver it. Importantly, GVV doesn’t start with a list of abstract virtues or principles. It merely starts from the idea that all of us want to do the right thing, and that each of us has, in the past, found ourselves in situations in which we have drawn upon our own values to do the right thing under tough circumstances. GVV encourages each of us to figure out what our own best self is, what our best stories about ourselves are, and to draw upon those stories in moments of need. It’s a very positive message, and an immensely practical one — one that serves to remind us that ethics isn’t about being a saint. It’s about doing our best to be our best selves, given the enormously complex and ethically challenging organizations that we all inhabit.

Chris MacDonald is founding director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management, and founding co-editor of the Business Ethics Journal Review.

Why Neil Young is wrong about genetically modified food labelling

Illustration by Susan MacDonald

Illustration by Susan MacDonald

Neil Young is urging you not to buy coffee at Starbucks anymore.

He’s upset that the Grocery Manufacturers Association, of which Starbucks is a member, is suing Vermont over the state’s new law that will require labelling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients by summer of 2016.

In an open letter, Young claims that “we have a right to know what we put in our mouths.” As I’ve argued before, that simply isn’t true, at least not as a generalization. You certainly have a right to control what you put in your mouth, but that doesn’t — and cannot possibly — include a right to know every detail of every thing you put in your mouth. If you don’t trust something, don’t eat or drink it. Don’t buy it. But you don’t have the right to insist on knowing everything about it. You might want to know whether your food was harvested by the light of a full moon, but you don’t have a right to that information. A business that refuses to give you that information isn’t violating your rights.

It doesn’t help, of course, that one of the other key players in the lawsuit is Monsanto, a company that for many people represents evil incarnate. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m no fan of Monsanto. But its involvement shouldn’t blind us to the fact that GMO’s (genetically modified organisms) are, as a category, no less safe than any other kind of food. Nor should it blind us to the fact that the GMO category is both over-inclusive and under-inclusive if what you’re worried about is potentially-harmful forms of genetic modification. Scientists understand this. Neil Young does not.

Young is right about a couple of things, though. He rightly suggests, for example, that public pressure might get Starbucks to change its ways. This is quite plausible. Lots of companies are already caving in to irrational public fears regarding GMOs. Starbucks could be next, so Young’s strategy, regrettably, just might work.

He’s also right that there is more at stake, here, than what can be sold in one relatively small US state. It’s entirely possible that if the Vermont law is allowed to stand, the precedent it sets will help make it easier for other states to jump on the bandwagon.

But what Young is right about is far outweighed by what he’s wrong about. He claims that the lawsuit is trying to “stop accurate food labeling.” That’s a gross misrepresentation. There’s nothing importantly “accurate” about a label that says “this product contains GMOs,” even when it’s technically true. For that to count as accurate labelling, it would have to be a meaningful label (one that distinguishes one kind of ingredient from an importantly different kind) and it would have to have some chance of being understood by customers. Such a label is much more likely to be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and mistakenly taken as a reliable guide to better purchasing decisions.

Consider: what if some jurisdiction foolishly passed a law saying that all foods containing carbon had to be labelled as such? What if someone opposed that law? Would they be fighting “accurate food labelling?” All food contains carbon. Pointing it out helps nobody. And claiming that they have a “right” to be told it is just plain silly.

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