The Ethics of Selling Less
I’m just back from speaking at a terrific conference in New York on Corporate Citizenship, sponsored by The Economist. The panel I was on included senior executives from both Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble. During Q&A, I kept hoping someone in the audience would ask a particular question that was on my own mind. Both of those companies face one particular challenge: they both produce at least one product that, socially, we’d like them to sell less of. The world would be a better place if less sugary cola was consumed, and the Pampers brand diapers made by P&G are currently being archived for eternity in our landfills. There’s a hard ethical problem there, especially for Coca-Cola: their product is arguably perfectly harmless when consumed in moderation, but many people don’t consume it in moderation. Coke knows that. They’re helping feed the obesity epidemic — but they’re also selling something that many people enjoy in very safe moderation. But if colas (and other sugary drinks) are feeding the obesity epidemic, their contribution to that epidemic varies only in degree from other kinds of foods and beverages that are subject to over-use. If it’s wrong to sell cola, then it’s arguably also wrong to sell ice cream, chocolate cake, and (gasp!) wine. All of those have plenty of calories, and all of them can make you fat.
As it happens, here’s a related story from just 2 days ago, by Bruce Horovitz, for USA Today: Pepsi is dropping out of schools worldwide by 2012
The iPod Generation will get a global lesson in healthier beverages from an unlikely source: Pepsi.
PepsiCo on Tuesday announced plans to voluntarily remove high-calorie sweetened drinks from schools for kids up to age 18 in more than 200 countries by 2012. Coke and Pepsi agreed to stop selling sugary drinks in U.S. schools in 2006….
Whether the product in question is food or something else, marketing to kids is arguably “low-hanging fruit,” ethically. It’s relatively clear that (most?) young people are less-able to make good dietary decisions than are (most?) adults. Add to that two special features of teens in particular. First, they famously think they’re indestructible, so they’re unlikely to be scared off by warnings that a product is unhealthy for them. And second, they’re in the process of forming patterns of food consumption that are likely to be with them for life. So it’s pretty easy to make an argument that it’s especially socially irresponsible to market sugary drinks to kids & teens.
Now, I’m sure some people wish Coke & Pepsi would both go farther, and restrict their marketing even more. But maybe by taking their beverages out of schools, these companies are aiming at a kind of compromise. Maybe this kind of decision on the part of Pepsi is analogous to the kind of behaviour we all ought to exercise in our own consumption of sweetened drinks: not utter abstinence, but a reasonable degree of moderation.