How to Sell Tobacco Responsibly
Back in November I blogged about ethically producing and marketing controversial products. I proposed this thought experiment:
“If you think product X is unethical (or maybe just morally ‘problematic’), can you engage in a constructive discussion about how to make that product more acceptable (while still selling it) or how to sell it more ethically?”
Today I got to see first hand what it looks like when a company tries to have such a discussion. I was invited to be part of a round-table discussion designed to provide Imperial Tobacco of Canada with constructive feedback on its ‘sustainability’ framework. (Imperial is now a member of Canadian Business for Social Responsibility. CBSR hosted the event.)
Here’s a link to Imperial’s Corporate Social Responsibility page. Their most recent report on their activities in this area is called Taking Responsibility…An Update On Our Commitments. That document is prefaced by a letter from CEO Benjamin J. Kemball, who (oddly, I think) signals that the company’s next report will be not a “social responsibility” report, but a “sustainability” report. And much of today’s discussion was framed in terms of “sustainability.” (I think the shift is odd, and I told them so at today’s meeting, because the sorts of things they’re doing, the sorts of activities they report on in this document, have little to do with what most people mean when they talk about “sustainability.” Corporate citizenship, maybe, or corporate responsibility, but not sustainability. For a forestry company, finding a way to operate sustainably is a worthy ethical goal. For most companies, it sounds like aiming low.)
According to the document cited above, Imperial’s key commitments (to sustainability or corporate responsibility or whatever) fall into 3 categories:
- Fighting the illegal tobacco trade;
- Developing harm reduced tobacco products;
- Preventing underage smoking.
(Those 3 are the focus of the document, though we talked this morning about other relevant stuff they’ve got going on, including some supply-chain management stuff, ethics requirements for suppliers, etc.)
Anyway, the document is interesting reading. And this morning’s conversation was a fruitful one. It was interesting to see what an apparently-earnest company can do to differentiate itself ethically — short of stopping selling its dangerous product.
I still think you can only get so far in terms of genuine “goodness” (whether framed in terms of corporate citizenship, sustainability, etc.) when the product you sell is one that you acknowledge to be dangerous. But I think the answer to my hypothetical question — about whether a constructive conversation can be had about ethics in the making and marketing of a controversial product — is clearly “yes.”