Archive for the ‘consumers’ Category
When should a corporation play the role of legal and moral enforcer? And when does a corporation start to take on the obligations — and limits — of a government?
Consider Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system. When it was released last year, the new OS has met with mixed reviews. But at least one review, by PC World, noticed something interesting about SkyDrive, the new cloud storage service integrated into Windows 8:
“Microsoft restricts the types of files you may upload: Illegally copied commercial content is prohibited, and so are files that contain nudity or excessive violence.”
Just what does that mean? Let’s focus here just on the nudity part.
During an online Q&A session this summer, two Microsoft engineers clarified. Apparently SkyDrive’s rules mean that you are free to store your nudie pics, as long as they don’t include any child pornography. But if you use SkyDrive’s file-sharing feature, the limits are more strict: no nudity at all. So, those topless beach photos from your Mexican vacation are OK to store, but not to share. Is Microsoft checking to make sure stored erotica doesn’t include children? That’s not clear.
This raises interesting problems related to the amount of control that corporations have over everyday activities like storing computer files, especially when — as is the case with many tech companies — their services become part of the infrastructure of our lives, woven into everything we do.
Such power isn’t going to go away. But it does raise questions about the ethical standards that apply to corporate behaviour. If corporations have the kinds of power that were once reserved for states, do they then have the same kinds of obligations? Do the same standards for surveillance and search-and-seizure apply to Microsoft and its users as apply to a government and its citizens?
Of course, if Microsoft users don’t like it, they are in principle free to opt out. There are alternatives to SkyDrive — including Dropbox, Apple’s iCloud, and many others. But Microsoft’s market penetration in terms of operating systems means that for many users (especially ones who aren’t technically sophisticated) SkyDrive is the default. And default options matter; there’s a vast psychological literature on how often people simply go with the default, even when an alternative is available that would advance their interests better.
With great market power comes great responsibility.
Canadian grocery chain Loblaw has announced that it will compensate the families of victims of the factory collapse that happened in Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza this past May. The factory housed a number of garment factories, including some that made garments for the Canadian’ retailer’s “Joe Fresh” line of clothing.
Some will worry that this is a case of too little, too late. And certainly the “too late” part is correct. Compensation is always a distant second best when compared to avoiding deaths in the first place. Whether the compensation is “too little” or not is subject to debate. It’s not clear that Loblaw (or any company) bears direct responsibility for the behaviour of the companies it buys services from, though certainly the case is stronger where the buyer is a highly-capable multi-billion dollar company, and when the companies it buys from are smaller, less-capable companies operating in an under-regulated environment.
Either way, it’s hard not to admire the company for stepping up and assuming responsibility. And the money will surely be a godsend to the families of the victims. But the real benefit of the compensation scheme may well lie in its capacity to reassure Canadians (and other westerners) that the company cares, and that things are going to get better in Bangladesh, so that we can all keep buying goods made there. Because that’s what Bangladesh truly needs.
But on the other hand I continue to worry about Bangladeshi exceptionalism — that is, that all the attention being lavished on the garment industry in Bangladesh will mean little attention gets paid to parallel problems in places like Malaysia, Vietnam, Pakistan, China, and a number of African countries. There are surely factories in many, many developing countries that are ‘Rana Plazas’ just waiting to happen. It’s not clear just what is being done about those.
Finally, many will be asking what still needs to change? Two things come to mind. The first is that companies like Loblaw need to keep getting better at vetting the companies they do business with, in order to weed out the bad ones. This, of course, is much harder than it sounds. The second is that Canadians and other Westerner consumers need to change the way they think about the issue. They need to recognize that Bangladesh is not Canada, and doesn’t have the luxury of North American-style labour standards. They will surely get there, but it will be a long, slow climb.
Most important is that this tragic series of events has focused the world’s attention on an important set of issues. But the challenge lies in harnessing that attention and seeking out reasoned discussion, rather than knee-jerk reactions.
Earlier this week I blogged about the intersection between customer service, ethics, and public relations. I pointed out that when the occasional grouchy remark turns into a pattern of disrespect, customer service becomes a question of ethics, and — in an age of social media — a potential PR nightmare.
But this raises a bigger question about the nature of the relationship between a business and its customers. Is the relationship between buyer and seller appropriately thought of as an adversarial one or a cooperative one? Ethically, is it right for a company to think of customers as friends or foes?
There are intuitive reasons on both sides. On one hand, buyer and seller have a shared interest in ‘doing the deal.’ They typically want to do business with each other, and both benefit from the transaction. On the other hand, every dollar a buyer saves is a dollar lost from the seller’s point of view. Every buyer wants a low price and every seller wants a high price, so the conflict is built right in.
We can name at least four different approaches to arriving at an answer to this question.
We might try looking at the question from the point of view of everyday ethics: people are people, and we should treat them honestly and with respect regardless of who they are. If fairness is good, then we should promote fairness in commercial transactions, just as we do in other areas of life. And that requires that buyer and seller at least see each other as equals. They don’t have to adopt a cooperative stance, but neither should they be adversarial.
We could instead take an economic approach. From an economic point of view, the interaction between buyer and seller is best understood as a ‘mixed motive’ game. In other words, it’s a game in which the players’ respective rankings of possible outcomes partly coincide and partly diverge. Both players would rather do a deal than not do a deal, but they disagree over what the best deal would be. If you’re in such a game, you should adopt an attitude that is neither fully cooperative nor fully adversarial. Unless, of course, displaying one of those attitudes moves the deal in your direction.
Third, we might think about this from the point of view of social conventions. It may well be that in certain cultures it is traditional (and perhaps widely accepted) that buyers and sellers treat each other as adversaries. And perhaps in certain other cultures it is traditional (and expected) that buyers and sellers will treat each other in a more convivial way. There are likely even individual industries typified by one or the other of those conventions. Doctors, for instance, are trained (and incentivized) to adopt a collaborative approach to their patients. Some stock brokers have notoriously adopted an adversarial approach to their clients.
Finally, we might think of this question from the point of view of corporate strategy. In other words, whether you think of your customers as friends or enemies — whether you adopt a collaborative or instead competitive attitude to them — might be a question of what kind of company you want to be. Some companies thrive on aggressive sales tactics; others thrive on a softer, more relationship-driven approach. Seen from this point of view, there’s no single, general answer to the question. Each firm needs to answer it for itself.
Regardless of how you frame the question, and regardless of the answer you arrive at, the attitude your company adopts towards customers is bound to become well known, especially in an era in which reputation spreads via Facebook and Twitter. Seller beware!
Tanning beds are rapidly joining cigarettes in the “it’s only legal because no one has figured out how to outlaw it” category. Indeed, even their legality is slipping. Jurisdictions from Prince Edward Island to Texas, for example, are banning minors from tanning salons. Not surprisingly, dermatologists are pleased. Indeed, the Canadian Dermatology Association has issued a release, noting that indoor tanning “causes premature aging and… increases a person’s risk of developing skin cancer, including melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.”
Is this a business that should exist at all? Sure, even a potentially-dangerous product can be used safely if used in suitable moderation. But the question here has to be whether moderation is the norm, and whether customers will know what moderation means.
Protecting minors is the regulatory low-hanging fruit. Protecting kids is an easy sell. Tanning beds pose a risk to anyone who uses them, but teens are in particular need of protection. Studies have suggested that younger people are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of ultra-violet radiation. And teens, in particular, tend to be both obsessed with appearance and under the sway of a general belief in their own invincibility. And According to the the dermatologists, “tanning before the age of 35 has been associated with a significant increase in the risk of melanoma.”
But beyond the case of minors, shouldn’t we all be free to tan at will? Well, yes and no. Freedom is a good thing, sure. But freedom in the marketplace is predicated on the idea that everyone involved is more or less rational and well-informed. This imposes an obligation on businesspeople to be honest and forthright about risks associated with their products. But tanning salons themselves may be promoting a number of myths that make artificial tanning seem safer than it is.
If you’re only still in business because no one has figured out how to make your product illegal, you should probably consider a new line of business.
This past Tuesday I had the honour of being invited to testify before the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs of Canada’s House of Commons. The hearing was part of a “study on corporate practices by companies supplying and manufacturing products in developing countries for Canadian consumers.” The discussion wasn’t specifically about the factory that collapsed in Bangladesh last month, but that sad event was certainly on everyone’s mind.
Other witnesses included representatives from the Retail Council of Canada (RCC), from Loblaw, from the Shareholder Association for Research and Education (SHARE), and from Gildan Activewear Inc.
Not surprisingly, a range of views were presented to the Committee. Strong government intervention? Solo efforts by individual companies? Collective action through groups like the RCC? Opinions differed on just how to proceed.
Equally unsurprising was that the witnesses were unified in their expression of deep sympathy for the people of Bangladesh. Everyone, as far as I could tell, was also in favour of improving working conditions in places like Bangladesh. Shareholders, for example, according to SHARE’s Peter Chapman, are and ought to be concerned about the “ESG” (ethics, social, & governance) obligations of the companies they invest in. Robert Chant — a senior VP at Loblaw, a company that commissioned clothing from one of the companies that worked out of the factory that collapsed in Bangladesh — said that while his company has always been concerned to monitor working conditions, they simply hadn’t thought to have their subcontractors’ buildings inspected. It wasn’t on their radar. And so the collapse in Bangladesh, said Chant, who showed genuine emotion during his testimony, “Shook us to the core,” and spurred his company to commit to doing better.
In my own testimony, I made 3 key points and 3 recommendations:
First, I noted that Canadian companies do indeed have ethical obligations that go beyond the legal minimum required by the governments of the countries in which they operate. Adherence to the law is seldom enough to guarantee that a company or individual has satisfied all relevant ethical obligations. This is of special significance in developing countries with underdeveloped legal and regulatory systems.
Second, I noted that we cannot expect companies operating in places like Bangladesh or China to adhere to Canadian labour standards. And perhaps no one expects that. Canadians generally enjoy high pay and high labour standards because we can afford to. Other countries, unfortunately, are not there yet.
Third, I asked what is the best way for Canadians to contribute to the well-being of those who work in factories in places like Bangladesh. I suggested three answers to this question. First, Canadians can continue buying things made in places like Bangladesh, because that is what gives a high proportion of Bangladeshis jobs. The second way to help is through charitable donations, both to humanitarian groups as well as to groups that are focused on issues like good governance and fighting corruption.
The third thing Canadians can do is to continue paying attention to this issue, and to continue encouraging Canadian institutions — businesses, governments, and NGOs — to keep working towards making things better. All have a role to play in encouraging and offering guidance on the pursuit of incremental improvements in working conditions in developing nations.
Is the customer always right? Is it more important to protect consumers, or to give them options and let them choose? This is a real-life dilemma that was posed to me recently. I’ve changed the names and some other details in what follows, but the basic dilemma is real.
Abe and Ben are starting a coffee shop together. Situated in a trendy neighbourhood, the shop will feature high-quality, fair-trade, organic coffees and a range of gourmet pastries from a local bakery. They’re in the process now of deciding on their menu, and on smaller details like the condiments (sugar, cream, etc.) that will be available for patrons. It is this latter issue that has brought Abe and Ben into conflict.
Abe contends that the only condiments they should provide are cane sugar, organic milk, and soy milk. Abe wants no white sugar or artificial sweeteners. After all, he says, the health of our customers matters, and white sugar and artificial sweeteners are unhealthy.
Ben says, Look, the customer is king. Some will appreciate cane sugar, sure, but some want the white sugar they grew up with, and some diet-conscious folks will want zero-calorie artificial sweeteners, and we should give them what we want. Who are we to tell them what to do?
So who is right?
I would say choice is a good thing. To the best of my knowledge, the evidence is very weak that “other” condiments are bad for you (especially in the relevant, tiny quantities). For that matter, if Abe is that concerned about his customers’ health, he should argue for not serving sugar at all. There’s plenty of evidence that that is bad for you. As a scientist friend of mine puts it: there’s much more evidence that sugar is bad for you than there is that artificial sweetener is bad for you.
Of course, if Abe and Ben decide to make “100% natural,” or something like it, a part of their branding — as many companies do — then it makes sense to offer only condiments that are consistent with that ethos. But there’s no reason to think of that as a more ethical policy.
The issue of ethics in the food industry never really goes away, but there are times when it garners more than its usual share of headlines. About a month ago, the New York Times published a lengthy piece called “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food,” by Michael Moss, author of “Salt Sugar Fat.” The piece is a riveting look at the often-cynical moves made within the food industry within recent decades to use our tastebuds against us, to use our love of salt and sugar and fat to persuade us to buy products that are making us more overweight and less healthy.
The next headline had to do with NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to push back by banning supersized sugary drinks. The move had many fans. Not among those fans: Starbucks, which said it simply would not comply, the American Beverage Association, and New York State Court Judge Milton Tingling, who accepted the ABA’s request to block Bloomberg’s plan.
Most recently, and related to all of the above, the New York Times recently ran an opinion piece on the need to impose stricter regulations on food companies in order to slow the industry’s otherwise seemingly inexorable march toward ever more addictive, and less healthy, prepared foods. The piece was written by a guy named Michael Mudd, a former executive VP at Kraft, no less.
Mudd’s key point is essentially that if the food industry is going to be reined in, government is going to have to do it, since the industry shows little interest in restraining itself. In other words, to borrow Mudd’s words, government is going to have to “force ethics” on the industry.
There are at least two significant problems with framing the issue this way.
The first problem has to do with chalking it all up to a lack of ethics. This is entirely the wrong diagnosis. Or, to be precise, even if the food industry suffers from an ethics deficit, that deficit is not necessarily the root cause of the problem. The unfortunate truth is that there are some problems for which “more ethics” simply is not a viable solution. Ethics is about finding rules that make social living better, but it assumes some overlap of interests. In particular, ethics only works where we have a shared sense that our lives—or our businesses—would go better if we followed a few rules. Ethics isn’t fundamentally about self-sacrifice; it’s about mutual restraint for mutual benefit. That’s why ethics is generally important in business: harmony is good for business. But it’s still a competitive game, and at the end of the day all the competitors want to win. Unless you can show the food industry that its interests will somehow be promoted by playing by a different set of rules, then an ethical solution just isn’t in the cards.
There’s a second reason why ethics isn’t enough. Ethics involves restraint on self-interested (or profit-seeking) behaviour. But the notion of restraint presumes some understanding of where to draw lines. But consider the dilemma faced by any company that sells a fundamentally sugary or fatty food, like Coke or Twinkies or Doritos. These products are delicious, and harmless if consumed as most of us consume them, namely in moderation. When the Coca Cola Company sells me a can of coke, it does absolutely nothing remotely unethical. I’m a grownup, well-informed about the nutritional characteristics of Coke, and besides this one coke is meaningless, health-wise.
But, yes yes, we all know that anyone drinking too much Coke is going to suffer ill effects, and a society that drinks too much Coke is going to suffer too. But how much is too much? No one can say. And simply imploring the Coca Cola Company to “be more ethical” is useless, here. True, we can implore them not to advertise in a way that targets kids, or not to promote ridiculously huge servings, but that leaves the fundamental paradox of their product untouched. Even a scrupulously ethical — indeed, saintly — Coca Cola Company would still find itself uncertain as to how to market its product. How would you sell a product that many people enjoy harmlessly, but that in the aggregate causes trouble?
Finally, the plea for “more ethics” in the food industry misses entirely the fact that that the food industry’s pattern of supplying us with excessive quantities of fat and sugar and salt constitutes a classic social dilemma, a situation in which each person’s (or company’s) behaviour is individually reasonable, but collectively disastrous. We’re poisoning ourselves with junk food for the same reason we’re burdening our atmosphere with giant quantities of carbon dioxide. Not because we’re stupid or unethical, but because my own efforts to reduce carbon emissions (or yours, or yours, or yours) are neither necessary nor sufficient to make a difference. Coke can’t solve the obesity problem. Nor can McDonalds. Nor Kraft. Nor… you get the picture.
So, yes, feel free to call for greater regulation of the food industry. But recognize that in doing so you’re not calling for more ethics. You’re admitting that even ethical companies can produce unwanted outcomes. A good understanding of the role of ethics in business must include some appreciation of the range of problems at hand, including the ones for which ethics is unnecessary, as well as the ones for which ethics simply is not enough.
Product labels are important, both practically and ethically. Reading the label is a key way to make sure the thing you’re buying meets your needs. Labels on products can help inform consumers about what they’re buying, reducing what economists call information asymmetries between buyer and seller. Where substantial information asymmetries exist, voluntary exchanges can fail to live up to the promise of mutual benefit, and society as a whole suffers from the resulting reduction in market efficiency.
Of course, not everything that could be said about a product could possibly be crammed onto a product’s label, so generally the information provided consists of what the maker of the product really wants to brag about, what consumers insist on knowing, and anything beyond that that regulators have seen fit to insist upon.
So precisely what gets labeled, and what form the labelling takes, matters a lot. Now while the moral significance of labels in general is not disputed, just what should be included on labels is hotly debated.
Take, for instance, the question of whether a food product has been genetically modified (GM). Or, more precisely, whether the ancestor of the organism from which a food product was derived was genetically modified by means of a particular set of laboratory procedures. It’s important to be precise, here, because there is virtually nothing that we eat today that hasn’t been ‘genetically modified’ by humans in some loose sense.
If you thought the question of GM labelling had gone away with the demise of California’s Proposition 37 this past November, think again. Washington State is apparently about to hold a vote on the issue, and there are reports that the anti-GM faction has been energized by the battle in California, and perhaps even galvanized by the massive sums of money that ‘big food’ and ‘big ag’ apparently spent to help defeat Prop 37. But as I’ve argued before, the demand for mandatory labelling of GM foods is misguided: the broad scientific consensus is that there’s no reason to worry about GM foods. Making such labelling mandatory, just because some people want to know if their food’s genes have been tweaked in certain ways, would be unjust.
Contrast this with the stunning report recently released by the ocean conservation group, Oceana. Nevermind subtle genetic modifications. Oceana found that a very high proportion of the fish sold in American retail outlets isn’t even from the species indicated on the label. So consumers are buying “snapper” that isn’t really snapper, and “tuna” that isn’t really tuna. Here, consumers are being lied to. Information isn’t just being omitted; the information being given is actually a lie, and so consumers are being cheated.
If the food companies of the world are going to expend money and effort to provide consumers with information, it’s pretty clear which kind of issue they should expend it on.