Archive for the ‘brands’ Category
It’s easy to villainize a company like Walmart for being unwilling to sign an agreement seeking to improve safety for workers in Bangladesh. What’s harder is to assess the company’s actual motives, and its obligations.
Headlines recently blared that Walmart has refused to sign the new “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh”, despite the fact that 24 other companies (including Europe’s two largest clothing retailers, as well as American brand Tommy Hilfiger and Canada’s Loblaw) had signed.
Other news sources avoided the Walmart-centric hysteria and pointed out that lots of retail chains have in fact opted not to sign. For its part, Walmart says says it plans to undertake its own plan to verify and improve conditions at its suppliers’ factories in Bangladesh. Supporters of the accord, however, are skeptical about the effectiveness of company’s proposed independent effort.
From the point of view of ethical responsibilities, could a well-intentioned company conscientiously decline to sign the pact?
It’s worth looking at a few reasons why a company might choose not to sign a pact designed to improve, and even save, lives. Walmart presumably believes that its own effort will be sufficient, and perhaps even superior. The company’s famous efficiency and notorious influence over suppliers lend some credibility to such a notion. Other companies have worried that signing the pact would bring new legal liabilities, which of course is precisely the point of a legally-binding document. (Gap, for instance, has said that it will sign only if language regarding arbitration is removed, a stance that effectively amounts to refusal.)
There may also be worries about governance: the accord provides for the appointment of a steering committee “with equal representation chosen by the trade union signatories and company signatories” — equal, but to be chaired by a seventh member selected by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Perhaps some worry that the ILO-appointed chair won’t really be neutral, giving unions an effective majority.
Other companies — including ones like Walmart, which is famous for its efficiency — may worry about the extra administrative burden implied by weaving this accord’s regulatory apparatus into its own systems of supply-chain oversight.
Another worry might be the fact that the accord applies only to Bangladesh, and makes that country the subject of a separate set of procedures. The accord also commits signatories to expenditures specifically on safety in Bangladesh, when from a particular company’s point of view Bangladesh might not be a priority. In the wake of the April factory collapse, it’s worth pointing out that there are other places in the world with unsafe factories and crummy working conditions. It’s not unreasonable for at least some companies to focus their efforts on places where conditions are equally bad, and that host even more of their suppliers.
None of this goes any distance toward excusing inaction. None of it condones apathy. The point is simply that while failure to sign a particular accord makes great headlines, we need to look carefully at reasons, as well as at a company’s full range of obligations, if we are to make sense of such a decision.
Loblaw Companies Limited, the company that owns the Joe Fresh retail clothing line, has announced that it will pay compensation to the families of victims of last week’s factory collapse in Bangladesh. Details are sparse at this point, but it’s an interesting development.
The move will of course garner the company plenty of praise. Some of that praise will be offered only grudgingly, by those who will see it as the least that can be done by a money-hungry corporation in the habit of squeezing profits out of the labour of Bangladeshis with few other options. But still, there will be praise. For it is easy to see the good in a transfer of wealth from a multibillion dollar Western corporation to several hundred exceedingly poor families. Any plausible amount of compensation will be trivial to the company, but an enormous boon the those in Bangladesh who were affected.
But I for one still have questions, in particular questions about what is motivating the move. As I’ve said, the move will do a lot of good, but there are many different principles that might underlie any given action that does good. And we typically care not just about outcomes, but about principles too. Upon what principle is Loblaw compensating the victims in Bangladesh?
Cynics are already assuming that the move is pure PR, aimed at deflecting criticism (however unfair) and dissociating the Joe Fresh brand from the grimy reality of developing-country sweatshops. That’s one possibility.
It might also be that the company sees such payment as a form of charity. The building collapse last week resulted in horrible human suffering. Most big companies donate to charitable and humanitarian causes. And even if Loblaw doesn’t see itself as responsible for the collapse, it must see a connection, emotionally at least, and so the families of the dead are an especially apt target for the company’s charity.
But for me, the word “compensate” raises questions. That word can mean many things. But in contexts like this, it is perhaps most naturally read as referring to payments aimed at offsetting a loss, payments from someone who is either responsible for that loss or who at least for some reason owes such a payment. “Compensation” is not quite the same as “restitution,” of course. The latter word clearly implies culpability. But still, the word “compensation” seems to imply a level of regret, if not guilt. Is that what the company is implying? After all, Loblaw could have opted simply to say “We’re going to help those affected,” or even more neutrally, “We’re going to send money.” But “compensation” is the word the company itself is using. Is that really what they mean? And if so, why specifically do they think they owe compensation? What level of responsibility do they take — do they plan on taking — for the actions of subcontractors on the other side of the planet?
This is more than mere semantics; it’s about the principles underlying corporate behaviour. If, as seems inevitable, we are to regard corporations as entities capable of taking action, and of meriting praise or blame, then we need to be able to talk about what motivates them, and to ask them about the principles upon which they act. In a way, to seek a principled explanation in a situation like this is even more demanding than simply to ask that the company pay up. As I’ve already noted, the money in this case is a drop in the bucket. Giving voice to a set of values and principles upon which corporate behaviour is based is a lot harder than writing a cheque.
The makers of POM Wonderful want you to use your heart, not your brain.
At least, that’s the distinct impression we get from the company’s recent battle with the US Federal Trade Commission. Last week, an administrative law judge for the FTC found that at least some of POM’s ads made “false and misleading” claims about the health benefits of the trendy, branded pomegranate juice. And the company is fighting back with a series of ads that, by quoting the judge out of context, makes it look like he actually looked favourably upon their product.
The tagline for these ads: “FTC v. POM: You be the judge”.
So POM wants you to be the judge. On the surface, that sounds like they want you to think for yourself. And who could complain about that? But context matters. So when the company is pushing back against the FTC’s assertion (and the court’s finding) that the health claims made on behalf of its juice just don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, the implied message is that yes, you the consumer should decide, but you shouldn’t use your head in doing so. After all, if you used your head and thought it through rationally, you would want to look at the evidence. And, well, the evidence doesn’t look so good for POM. But the makers of POM, it seems, would rather you look inward instead of looking at the evidence. C’mon, you’ve tasted it. It’s delicious. It must be good for you. And you, dear customer, are smart enough to know that, right? Forget what the science says.
This kind of thing is arguably part of a larger social trend. See this recent essay by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, on the way politicians, in particular over the last decade, have found new ways to play fast-and-loose with the truth. Heath and Potter point out the new popularity of the trick of using stubborn repetition as means of bullying your way past awkward facts. A lie can be convincing, in particular when it feels right, when the claim being made fits with your world view or how you want the world to be. And who wouldn’t like to believe that a tasty serving of fruit juice could prevent heart disease or cancer?
The makers of POM are certainly not unique among advertisers wanting you to use your heart, rather than your brain. But they are unusually bold about it, going on the offensive and thumbing their noses at the people whose job it is to do the fact-checking. So consumers beware: when a company wants you not to take a hard look at the facts, it’s usually time to do just that.
McDonald’s has been taking some heat over its continuing sponsorship of the Olympics. The fast-food chain recently announced that it would remain a top sponsor of the Olympic games through 2020.
The main charge here seems to be some form of hypocrisy. Critics suppose that there’s some sort of contradiction involved in a sporting event being sponsored by a fast-food chain. But there is, of course, no contradiction at all — at least not for those of use who take both our sports and our junk food in moderation. True, a diet that includes frequent trips to McDonald’s (or Burger King or Wendy’s, etc. etc.) seems inconsistent with a lifestyle aimed at maximal athletic output. There’s a real conflict there. But few of us are aiming at elite sporting status, and relatively few of us (thankfully) make Big Macs a staple. Most of us enjoy both sport and junk food in moderation. For us, the occasional serving of greasy fries does absolutely no harm at all to our athletic aspirations. There’s no contradiction in loving, say, both a Quarter Pounder With Cheese and training for a Half Marathon. So there’s no inherent contradiction involved in McD’s sponsoring the Olympics.
And really, if anyone is to blame, it’s not McDonald’s but the International Olympic Committee, and/or whatever subcommittees or functionaries are assigned the task of signing sponsors. After all, it’s their supposed values, not the fast-food chain’s, that this sponsorship deal presumably violates.
But supposed value-conflicts aside: what about the effect of such the McDonalds/Olympics alliance on, for example, kids? Well, note to start that kids don’t watch the olympics much. As for the rest of us, well we need to come to grips with the fact that our economic system features certain warts. And one of those warts is that the freedom to buy-and-sell means the freedom to sell things the over-consumption of which is harmful. And the freedom to sell such things implies the freedom to advertise them. Is affiliation with McDonald’s jeopardizing the positive impact of the Olympics? So be it. Our system of free commerce is a system that brings with it enormous benefits, far more benefits than will ever be derived from one hypertrophied sporting event.
There’s oil, and then there’s oil. Right? Or is there only, you know, oil? Does it matter, ethically, where the oil we consume comes from?
That issue has arisen very recently and caused a minor diplomatic dust-storm: a Canadian ad offering a moral critique of Saudi Arabian oil specifically has apparently offended the Saudis, who have asked that the ads be taken off the air.
See this summary, by John Terauds for the Toronto Star: Canadian ethical oil ad stirs Saudi ire
A Canadian-made television ad that speaks out against oil imported from Saudi Arabia has raised the ire of the Middle Eastern nation, prompting it to send a threatening legal notice to broadcaster CTV.
The 30-second ad, produced by Toronto-based ethicaloil.org, focuses on discrimination against women in the conservative Muslim country….
But the ad in question isn’t just anti-Saudi oil; it’s a defence, by means of contrast, of good ol’ Canadian oil, derived primarily from the oilands (a.k.a. tarsands) of Alberta. Yes, the same oilsands that have themselves generated so much criticism on environmental grounds. Now it’s certainly not the first time someone has been accused of greenwashing the tarsands. But to slam Saudi oil as unethical in order to proclaim tarsands the ‘ethical alternative’ really does strain credulity.
Now the critique of Saudi oil isn’t entirely without merit. Saudi cultural standards for the status and treatment of women are ethically indefensible. But the “ethical oil” claim for the oilsands is a serious stretch, at least if it’s supposed to point to a bright and clear difference not just in particular ethically-salient characteristics, but in overall ethical goodness.
In principle, we could look at this as a matter of “choose your poison.” Do you want the oil that’s associated with human rights violations, or the oil that’s associated with environmental destruction? Interesting dilemma, in principle. But for most of us, it’s a moot point: oil (and the gas that comes from it) is an undifferentiated commodity, and we don’t get to choose based on nation-of-origin. So it’s not like the ad in question is really intended to help consumers make more ethical consumption choices.
More likely, what the group behind the ad is doing is the rhetorical equivalent of fracking, injecting the novel term “ethical oil” into existing debates over the oilsands, not because the term actually makes any sense, but simply in the hopes of stirring something up.
Update: Take a hew poll on this topic, here: Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?
The day has passed, but it’s a question that’s sure to arise again — just under a year from now, and the year after that, and so on.
What can, or should, businesses do with regard to a relatively recent tragic event like 9/11? The cultural significance of an event like 9/11 is hard for anyone to ignore, especially on the tenth anniversary of that fateful day. And companies thrive on raising their profiles, a feat that can most readily be accomplished by riding the coattails of cultural significance. But when the culturally-significant event in question is a tragic one, corporations need to tread carefully.
This general topic can be split into two more specific questions:
1) Can or should companies use references to an event like 9/11 in their advertising?
2) Can or should companies do something to memorialize such events?
The pure advertising question seems easy. Using references to 9/11 in ads is tacky, if not outright unethical. (For some examples, see this nice slideshow by Jim Edwards for Bnet: “10 Advertisers Exploiting the Sept. 11 Attacks to Push Their Brands”.) Profiting from other people’s pain and grief just isn’t a socially-constructive business strategy.
The problem of course is that it’s hard to separate questions 1 and 2. Naturally, any effort on the part of a company to memorialize an event is likely to be seen as an attempt by that company to raise its own profile.
But memorializing an event like 9/11 in some way seems unobjectionable, and perhaps even obligatory. The hard question is what form such memorializing should take. The best ways, perhaps, are the small-scale and personal ones. Giving employees time off work to attend memorial services, for example. The same principle applies to expressions of sentiment: small and local seems best. A simple sign on your front window that says “Never Forget 9/11″ seems to make the point best — better than, say, splashing that same slogan across millions of product packages — and is much less liable to engender suspicions that the expression of sentiment is self-serving.
As an final point, notice that this is precisely the kind of question for which the term “corporate citizenship” provides the right fulcrum. Some people try to use that term to cover all questions of corporate right-and-wrong , but that’s a mistake. Not all obligations or rights are rooted in a weighty concept like citizenship. But this one is. How we respond to national and international tragedies is clearly an issue of citizenship, in the full political sense of that word, the sense that implies a set of rights and responsibilities related to participation in public life. An alternative word like “sustainability,” which some people take to encompass all ethical questions, just doesn’t cut it here. How companies choose to respond to the anniversary of an event like 9/11 says a lot about how they see themselves as corporate citizens, as participating members of a still-grieving community.
It’s not easy selling carbonated sugar-water. Or rather, the selling part is all too easy. The hard part is steering a course between the conflicting desires of shareholders and activists. Shareholders want profits. That means selling more of high-profit-margin products like Pepsi and Doritos. Activists want companies to stop pushing unhealthy products like Pepsi and Doritos, and to focus on healthier — but less profitable — products.
See this story, by Mike Esterl and Valerie Bauerlein, for the WSJ: PepsiCo Wakes Up and Smells the Cola
…The snack-food and beverage giant is launching the first new advertising campaign for its flagship Pepsi-Cola in three years—offering one of the most visible signs PepsiCo is throwing new weight behind its biggest brand after it sank to No. 3 in U.S. soda sales last year, trailing not only Coke but Diet Coke….
When industry market share numbers came out in March, showing Pepsi-Cola slipped to No. 3, analysts quickly accused PepsiCo—and Chairman and Chief Executive Indra Nooyi—of taking their eyes off the company’s biggest brand….
There’s a lesson here for activists who think that reforming corporate behaviour is a simple matter of willpower, that companies can shift to healthier foods (or to less-violent video games) if only they had the guts to try it. Shifting your business practices in a way not endorsed by consumers is, well, a recipe for disaster.
Then again, maybe that’s a pretty decent outcome, from an activist’s point of view.
What’s the long-term prognosis? An ebb and flow of corporate strategy, in response to a range of pressures. Activists will win a few battles, as well as surely losing a few. Forcing companies to do what you want means forcing consumers to consume what you want. Because as everyone in business knows, while it’s simply not true that “the customer is always right,” it surely is true that the customer is always the customer.
This is twice in two weeks that I’ve blogged about Hooters. I swear it’s a coincidence.
From MSNBC: Catholic charity says ‘no’ to Hooters fundraiser
St. Patrick Center, a Catholic charity that provides assistance to homeless people, has canceled a Thursday fundraising “Dine and Donate” event with a downtown Hooters restaurant after drawing complaints that such a collaboration wasn’t in keeping with the Christian faith….
This is not exactly an isolated incident. Charities of all kinds have to decide, on a pretty much constant basis, who they’ll accept money from and who they want to associate with. In some cases, the struggle is an internal one; in other cases, it’s the result of external criticism. (Just look at the criticism UNICEF faced for making a deal with Cadbury.)
It’s worth pointing out that a charity faces two different issues, here. One is simply the source of money. A charity might consider money from certain sources as ill-gotten gains. In such cases, the money from certain sources is going to be unwelcome, even if donated very discretely. In other cases, the issue is publicity. Some charities might be willing to take money from anyone, in principle, but worry about the impact of having their name associated with — well, with Hooters for example. These two issues (dirty money and a dirty reputation) are separable, at least in principle. But secrets are pretty hard to keep secret, especially in an era in which transparency is valued and in which corporate donors are relatively eager to publicize their good deeds to spit-shine their image. So really, the key concern is liable to be reputation.
And in terms of reputation, the anything-goes strategy seemingly suggested by some idealists is likely to be fatal to just about any charity. Those who think it’s “obvious” that St. Patrick Center, for example, should be happy and eager to take Hooters’ money should ask themselves: if Hooters is OK, how about the local strip club? How about a hardcore porn magazine? I’m not at all saying those various enterprises are all alike, in all morally-relevant ways. I’m just pointing out that most people will see some place where they would like a line drawn. And ethics bleeds into prudence here. Most charities have reputation and goodwill as their only real capital. A company that makes cars can recover from scandal by, well, making good cars. You don’t have to love the company to love the cars. But an organization whose only real asset is its reputation — well, sully the reputation and you’re pretty much sunk.
But then, neither can your typical cash-strapped charity afford to be too prissy about sources of cash. Look too closely at any donor and you’re very likely to find skeletons in the closet.
Thanks to Tara Ceranic for showing me this story.
I’ll start by highlighting the obvious conflict of interest, here: my blog is carried on the website of Canadian Business magazine. In this blog entry, I effectively congratulate CB for highlighting ethics. So this is not an unbiased blog entry, but hopefully the facts I present here speak for themselves and stand on their own.
Ethics in business is clearly a hot topic these days, whether discussed using the word “ethics” itself or one of the mushier terms like “CSR” or “sustainability” or “corporate citizenship.” Even those who are cynical about the topic cannot deny that it is an important topic.
But here’s an interesting fact. At time of writing, only two major business magazines (Canadian Business and Fast Company) feature ethics and/or CSR on the front page of their websites. The Economist, Forbes, Fortune, and Business Week do not.
Here’s slightly more detail:
- Canadian Business has both Ethics and CSR listed on the front page.
- Fast Company has a link called Ethonomics on its front page (right at the top), which leads to a section featuring a pretty steady stream of social responsibility blog postings.
- Forbes has a CSR blog but it is very hard to find if you start from the site’s main page. You need to click on “Leadership” (not at all obvious) and then you’ll see the link in the lower-right of the Leadership page.
- The Economist has nothing ethics- or CSR-related on its main page, though to its credit The Economist does tackle relevant topics pretty frequently. (For an older example, see The Good Company.)
- Fortune likewise has nothing on their main page (though if you click on the “Leadership” link, you get taken — oddly — to their Management page, which currently features a piece on philanthropy.)
- Business Week likewise does nothing to feature CSR or ethics.
So, what do you think? Why are business magazines, and in particular their websites, so slow on the uptake? Is it lack of interest, lack of access to good content, or both, or something else?