Archive for the ‘food’ Category

Ethical Complexity and Simplification in Food Choices

As I pointed out a few days ago, shopping ethically is hard. Right on cue, a flurry of news items followed to drive that point home.

First, a story about how — say it ain’t so! — local food isn’t always ethical food. The story points out that some agricultural workers in southern Ontario (just a short drive from where I live) report suffering from a range of ailments that they attribute to the chemicals to which they are exposed. So, yes, there’s more than a single dimension to food ethics. If (or rather when) local is actually better, that’s got to be an “other things being equal” sort of judgment. Local might be better — so long as local farm workers aren’t being abused, and so long as growing food in your local climate doesn’t require massive water and fuel subsidies, etc.

Next, a Valentine’s-themed bit on how to buy ethical chocolate. The short version: apparently you’re supposed to look for local, organic chocolate that’s certified free of child-labour, sold in a shop that dutifully recycles and composts. Of course, such chocolate isn’t necessarily cheap. And if you’re spending that much on chocolate, then you might want to think what other things you’re scrimping on as a result, and who might be affected by that scrimping.

Finally, there was a story — really just a press release — noting that chocolate bar manufacturer Mars is set to ‘help’ consumers by narrowing their choices: the company is aiming to put a 250-calorie limit on all its bars by 2013. Interesting question: is this a matter of helping particular customers, by encouraging them not to over-indulge? Or is it rather a matter of specifically social responsibility, an attempt by a food giant to respond to (or at least to limit its contribution to) the social problem of obesity? And — speaking of value choices — should food companies aim first and foremost at pleasing their customers, or serving society as a whole?

Eggs, Ethics, and Supply-Chain Accountability

Canadian Business recently reported that two major companies — McDonald’s and Target — have dropped egg supplier, Sparboe Farms, after concerns arose regarding animal welfare at the company’s egg-production facilities. It’s a small PR hassle for titans like McDonald’s and Target. But it’s clearly a huge hit for a company like Sparboe.

This case raises two important points, ones that go far beyond the relationships between mega-chains and their suppliers:

The first has to do with supply-chain responsibility. Notice that McDonald’s, for its part, doesn’t deal directly with Sparboe: it gets Sparboe eggs via Cargill Inc., the agricultural giant that supplies all of McDonalds’ eggs. This raises an interesting question about supply-chain ethics. Any company is clearly responsible for, and should be accountable for, its own behaviour. And a company is pretty clearly also partly responsible for, and should be accountable for, the behaviour of its suppliers, at least to the extent that it knows, or should have known, about those suppliers’ behaviour. But what about the behaviour of their suppliers’ suppliers? The modern trend is toward nearly infinite responsibility, up and down the supply chain. That much is clear. But the moral principle behind such responsibility is less clear.

Sensible thinking about supply-chain accountability has to differentiate, I think, between retrospective culpability, on one hand, and responsibility to make changes going forward, on the other. Is McDonald’s responsible for brutal behaviour by employees of a supplier’s supplier? No. But do they have a responsibility to take action, now that they know about it? Yes.

The other point has to do with the blurry boundary between practices that are unethical, on one hand, and practices that are in some more vague way unacceptable to the public, on the other. Animal welfare issues are a great example of this. Philosophers continue to debate the moral significance of animals and their suffering. Some will tell you that all suffering, human or not, is of moral significance. Others will tell you that ethics is a human device for making social living more congenial and sustainable. On the latter point of view, animal suffering might be ugly, but it’s not unethical, except to the extent that we have an obligation not to tread upon other people’s sensibilities. But this distinction matters little, in many cases: a company’s suffering can result from either — either from behaviour that is actually unethical, or from behaviour that is simply seen as being so.

Food Industry Ethics, Regulatory Reform, and Corporate Citizenship

I blogged yesterday about the importance of sound government and rule of law as a background condition for ethical corporate behaviour. Here in Canada (as in most other developed economies) we grumble about our government and our system of regulation, but we’re actually relatively lucky that way, by world standards. Our economy is thriving (quarter-to-quarter hiccups aside) in large part because businesses here have the luxury of doing what they do against a background of generally-stable government and generally-sane regulations.

But that’s not to say that there isn’t room for improvement. One key area in need of (constant?) improvement is food policy. It’s an incredibly complex area, with an enormous range of interests at stake and a huge range of values at play. Public policy is, as a result, pretty messy. For more details, see this new report by the Conference Board of Canada’s Centre for Food in Canada (CFIC). Here’s a summary, from Better Farming: Canada’s food policy system overloaded: report

Out of date policies, laws and regulations as well as conflicting government involvement stymie innovation and economic growth in the country’s food sector says Conference Board of Canada report…

(You can download the report here.)

Economic growth in the food sector isn’t of direct relevance to consumers (though it is of direct relevance to those employed in the sector). But consumers still have plenty of reason to care about food policy. All questions of food policy have a more or less direct impact on the health and/or pocketbooks of consumers; and hence all questions of food policy raise ethical issues (many of which I’ve blogged about). For example, according to the BF story:

The report reviews the Canadian approach to food regulation based on a study of six issues: food additives, genetically modified foods, health benefit claims, country-of-origin labeling, inspection, and international trade. [hyperlinks added]

Industry, of course, has a role to play in helping to reform regulation in this area. But in doing so, industry must think especially carefully about its ethical obligations. Normally, the slogan “Play by the Rules!” sums up the lion’s share of a company’s obligations. But when the issue at hand involves figuring out what the rules — i.e., regulations — should be, industry needs to consider very carefully the full ethical weight of the notion of “corporate citizenship,” and remember that a citizen is someone who participates in policy debates with an eye not just to their own interests, but to the public good as well.

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Thanks to Prof. Richard Leblanc for bringing the CFIC report to my attention.

PETA Promises Porn With a Purpose

Is it just me, or has PETA jumped the shark? The always-provocative animal-rights organization is at it again, this time announcing that it’s planning on starting its own porn site to draw attention to the plight of animals. And once again it’s alienating groups that it ought to consider allies.

See this version of the story, by Madeleine White, for the Globe and Mail: PETA to launch porn website: Is this still about animal rights?

The animal rights group, known for its naturalist ways, has registered the domain name peta.xxx and plans to launch a pornography website in December that “draws attention to the plight of animals….”

Not surprisingly, many feminists (in the broadest sense of the term) have objected. The general line of argument is that you’re not really accomplishing anything if you’re raising awareness for one cause (say, animal suffering) by doing damage to another cause (say, sexual equality). When PETA uses naked bodies, they are almost always female bodies, portrayed and instrumentalized as sex objects. Porn, in other words, is pretty problematic as a consciousness-raising tool.

Now none of this assumes that all porn is automatically a bad thing. It is, by definition, naughty, and certainly controversial, but there’s little reasoned objection against portrayals of nudity or sexuality per se. Any sane objection has to be rooted in things like objectification, which is not a necessary ingredient of porn, though it is certainly a common one. Of course, no one knows yet just what kind of porn PETA has in mind, but the group’s history suggests that we shouldn’t expect anything terribly progressive.

Why does the group use such tactics in the first place? PETA claims that they have no choice:

Unlike our opposition, which is mostly composed of wealthy industries and corporations, PETA must rely on getting free “advertising” through media coverage.

But that’s not exactly true. According to PETA’s financial report, the organization has about a $36 million budget, overall, out of which it spends about $11 million on “Public Outreach and Education.”

It perhaps goes without saying that any for-profit corporation that tried to set up such a website to draw attention to its product would draw fire, too. But of course it is utterly unthinkable that Coca-Cola or Microsoft would set up an entire porn site just to draw attention to their products. That’s not to say that lots of companies don’t use sex in their advertising, but no mainstream company would ever go so far as to use actual porn to reach an audience. But then, PETA isn’t a for-profit corporation, but rather a not-for-profit corporation, one that exists to promote animal rights. But is objectification of female bodies for a cause different than objectification of female bodies for money, ethically speaking? PETA will surely say “yes.” After all, this is porn for a good cause, not just for its own sake, and not just to generate filthy profits. But it’s worth remembering that PETA’s values, and the goals it seeks, are far from universal. We’re not talking about, say, world hunger or literacy. And there are all kinds of for-profit companies that produce products that make the world a better place in tangible, agreed-upon ways.

Maybe the problem with PETA isn’t (just) that their campaigns objectify women, but that they are cavalier about doing so. They’re single-minded in pursuit of their objectives, and sex is just one more tool for them to use in pursuing it. An organization that’s supposedly committed to getting us to think about the plight of animals can’t afford to be seen as clueless about other ethical issues.

Winning the Hearts and Minds of Organic Consumers

The agri-food business has rapidly become one of the most ethically-controversial on the planet. Vicious cultural battles are being fought over what constitutes an ethically-decent way to raise various food products. And marketers are fighting tooth-and-claw to develop and market food products that meet the increasingly diverse desires of consumers — including consumers who may want food that is not just low-fat, low-salt, and low-cal, but organic, free-range, local, low-carbon, cruelty-free, fair-trade and/or free of genetically-modified ingredients. Winning the hearts and minds of a public with such varied preferences and interests is no easy task.

For a peek at the cultural and ethical complexity of the agri-food industry, check out this story, by Louise Gray, writing for The Telegraph: Soil Association ditches rockstars to go back to its roots. The story is really a profile of Helen Browning, the new director of the UK’s Soil Association, which is the nation’s most significant pro-organic charity, as well as the organization responsible for the world’s very first certification system for organic food back in the 60’s.

Two key points are worth making, here:

1) Browning displays an unusual degree of common sense in avoiding an “us vs. them” attitude towards non-organic farmers:

Much to the dismay of the more ‘fundamentalist’ wing of the organic movement she is also relaxed about letting non-organic farmers join the organisation and sharing information with intensive agriculture….

This is essential, if advocates of organic farming really are concerned with the health of consumers and the planet, rather than merely being concerned with promoting the organic ‘brand.’ Turning organic agriculture into an all-or-nothing category makes it too much like a cult, alienating non-organic farmers and giving them little reason to try to learn about alternatives or to reduce the amount of pesticides they use.

2) On the other hand, Browning’s hit-and-miss attention to science is are sure to do damage to her cause.

The former chair of the food ethics council argues that large scale units are overusing antibiotics and creating MRSA strains that are a danger to humans as well as animals.

She uses homeopathy to keep her herd healthy, but mostly it is being outdoors on a mixture of grass and clover that makes happy cows and tasty beef….

This is rather alarming. While Browning is right to worry about overuse of antibiotics in agriculture — that’s a serious public-health risk — opting for homeopathy as an alternative is utter lunacy, roughly equivalent to relying on witchcraft. (The Soil Association’s standards for organic livestock do permit standard vaccination, but also promotes the use of homeopathy.) Where the health of food animals is concerned, we need proven methods, not dis-proven ones. Consider: any food-processing plant that relied exclusively on, say, prayer or the blessings of a priest to eliminate germs, instead of thoroughly cleaning their machines, would face the wrath of regulators, not to mention public outrage. If organic agri-business is to win not just hearts, but also minds, it needs to do a better job of relying on science, and not just wishful thinking.

Pepsi Under Pressure

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.

Beer, Burgers, and Pretty Girls

As business models go, it’s all pretty straightforward: beer, fried food, and pretty girls who smile a lot and show some skin. And it’s successful, too. The ‘Hooters’ chain has made a lot of money that way, but so have a number of other chains. For evidence, see this story by Jason Daley, for Entrepreneur: ‘Breastaurants’ Ring Up Big Profits.

Franchises inspired by the Hooters model–such as Celtic-themed sports bar chain Tilted Kilt Pub & Eatery and faux mountain sports lodge chain Twin Peaks–have expanded rapidly over the last half decade, while corporate-owned chains like Brick House Tavern + Tap and Bone Daddy’s House of Smoke are picking up steam regionally. In fact, for the next couple of years, this segment (often referred to as “breastaurants”) is poised to be one of the fastest-growing restaurant categories….

OK, so it works. But it is also a business model that draws its share of criticism. A man doesn’t have to be a total prude to find himself thinking, “hmm…would I want my daughter / girlfriend / sister working there?” And if not, “why am I so comfortable with other people’s daughters / girlfriends / sisters working there?”

And being vaguely “uncomfortable” with such restaurants (if that’s your reaction) is a perfectly reasonable moral position. This is just the kind of case to use to illustrate the point that ethics doesn’t have to be done in terms of binary, go-or-no-go, ethical-or-unethical evaluation. The ethics of a business model that uses sex (or at least the idea of sex) to sell food is pretty grey. It’s easy to sketch a very rough kind of ethical justification of that business model, cast in terms of a commercial transaction between consenting adults, etc. It’s also easy to prejudge the situations, intentions, and attitudes of the women who work at a place like Hooters, and to cry out “exploitation” without truly understanding, say, the point of view of an actual Hooters Girl. But both of those options are too quick, and neither does much to increase our understanding. But it’s also worth seeing that refusal to opt for either extreme is not the same as shrugging your shoulders — it can be a principled point of view.

Besides, restaurants like Hooters or Tilted Kilt are part of a much larger spectrum, along which various restaurants and chains locate themselves. You certainly don’t have to go to a “mancave” restaurant of that sort in order to see either short shorts or low-cut tops on the waitresses and bartenders. That’s not justification for any particular business practice, but it is reason to question singling out particular chains for especially harsh criticism. And it’s also worth noting that in many cases, outside of these chains, it’s individual waitresses who make their own wardrobe decisions. Again, that fact doesn’t obviate the option of (or indeed the need for) social critique; it just means that we can’t reasonably roll our eyes at the very notion of a place like Hooters, and then merrily skip down to the neighbourhood bar where the waitresses wear short skirts and tube tops all summer.

Finally, it’s tempting to think there’s a sort of arms race going on here: that restaurants in this category (and some individual waitresses) will compete by having skimpier and skimpier outfits. But that seems unlikely. For one thing, the picture painted in the Entrepreneur piece is much more complicated than the ‘beer-and-boobs’ stereotype. Cleavage and short skirts may get men (in particular) through the door, but any restaurant that wants return business is going to have to do more than that. After all, if it were just about the boobs, then the “businessman’s lunch” offered by many strip clubs would be a lot more popular.

Naomi vs Cadbury

Racism is one of the last things any company wants to be accused of. Of all the kinds of corporate wrongdoing, racism is one of the hardest to defend against. For one thing, there’s not much “on the other hand.” It’s not like child labour, where you can say yeah, it’s unfortunate, but on the other hand these kids really do need the income. Racism is just bad, with no upside. The other problem is that racism (or at least accusations of same) can arise without anyone having racist intentions, let alone racist corporate policies.

See, for example, this story, by Mark Sweney for The Guardian: Cadbury apologises to Naomi Campbell over ‘racist’ ad:

Confectionery giant Cadbury has apologised to Naomi Campbell after the supermodel claimed an advert comparing her to one of its chocolate bars was racist.

The advert for Cadbury’s Bliss range of Dairy Milk chocolate bars used the strapline “Move over Naomi, there’s a new diva in town”….

Now, the ad isn’t necessarily racist. Campbell certainly is a diva (in the negative sense of that word) regardless of her skin colour. The word carries connotations of success, popularity, and glamour, as well as (more recently, I think) more than a touch of spoiled brattiness. Campbell certainly fits the bill, and so it wouldn’t be surprising if any ad using the word “diva”, regardless of what it is advertising, referred to her. And, as a matter of logic, to say that both Campbell and a chocolate bar are in the same category (i.e., “diva”) is not to say that Campbell herself is a chocolate bar. So I suspect the intention probably wasn’t racist, even in a passive, thoughtless way. But who knows what the ad’s makers were thinking? Maybe it really was a reference to ‘chocolatey skin,’ the kind of reference that, like many other racial terms or allusions, is probably best left for self-referential use by members of the relevant groups. Anyway, the perception that the ad was racist is there, and that’s enough: enough both to result in genuinely hurt feelings and to generate a serious PR problem. So yes, it’s good that Cadbury retracted the ads.

You’ve got to wonder how it is that all the smart people at Cadbury (including their PR department) and at their ad agency (Fallon), didn’t see this coming. Surely someone there must have realized that this is dangerous turf. Why didn’t someone raise a red flag? Is the “can-do” attitude there so strong that no one had the sense to say “wait a minute”? One way or the other, this case raises issues about corporate culture, whether in terms empowering employees to speak up, or, as Campbell herself rightly suggests, in terms of fostering diversity (of all kinds) at the level of senior management.

Finally, it must be somewhat galling for Cabury to be lectured to by Naomi Campbell, queen of disreputable behaviour. Ms Campbell’s own history of questionable behaviour doesn’t rob her critique of its force, but I guess it does make her something of an expert on the offering and timing of public apologies.

Are Girl Scout Cookies Evil?

Girl Guide CookiesIs nothing sacred? What could be more pure and innocent and hard-to-object-to than delicious bite-sized cookies sold, door-to-door, by happy-faced young girls trying to raise money to support a wonderful not-for-profit organization?

Well, apparently nothing is safe from criticism. Girl Guide cookies, as it turns out, are under attack for being made with palm oil, a tropical oil the production of which has been blamed for deforestation and for endangering the habitat of orangutans. Girl Scout cookies, in their current form, are apparently evil.

Dammit.

Here’s the story as reported by Tara Kelly, blogging for Time: Do Girl Scout Cookies Harm the Environment? Renegade Scouts Fight Against Palm Oil Ingredient

…now two renegade girl scouts are lobbying the Girl Scouts of America to remove the ingredient from the cookies.
Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, who are high school sophomores, stopped selling Girl Scout cookies in 2007 after they began working on a public service project to bring attention to the plight of endangered orangutans in Borneo. To ramp up their efforts, Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, natives of Ann Arbor, Michigan, have teamed up with Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to make the change a reality….

OK, OK. So I’ve long realized that Girl Scout Cookies (a.k.a. “Girl Guide Cookies,” here in Canada) are evil, but only in roughly the same way that any addict realizes that the object of his desire is evil. Every year I buy quite a few boxes of GG Cookies (the mint wafer kind, thank you very much) and hoard them, hiding them from family and friends, to enjoy them one-by-delicious-one.

A few random thoughts about the ethical issues here:

1) This is a lovely example of why not-for-profit organizations fall squarely within the bailiwick of business ethics, even if they’re not “businesses” as that term is traditionally conceived. (According to Time, by the way, the Girl Scouts annually sell nearly three quarters of a billion dollars worth of their delicious baked goods.) I suspect that Kathy Cloninger, CEO of Girl Scouts USA, is finding out that even a not-for-profit cannot hide its head in the sand when faced with criticism of its supply chain.

2) Sometimes (but only sometimes) evil comes from trying to do good. Time notes the reason for the existence of palm oil in the cookies:

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring unhealthy trans-fats to be listed on the Nutrition Facts labels on food products. Two official Girl Scouts bakers worked to make its cookies healthier in light of the changes, said Tomkins. “In order to rid cookies of trans-fats, you had to find another alternative.” That alternative is palm oil.

So, the cookies are less-environmentally-friendly because of efforts to make them better for your arteries. Is there a win-win alternative out there? Maybe, but that cannot be assumed. It may well be that some sort of tradeoff is going to be required. So, ask yourself: which do you care about more…your arteries or the orangutans? (“Pssst! You’ve got cookie crumbs on your tie!”)

3) The main reason that Girl Scouts USA makes such a good target for criticism (in addition to its prominence) is of course precisely the organization’s clean-cut, do-gooding image. In other words, the organization is vulnerable to criticisms that would simply be shrugged off by whatever anonymous company makes the cookies sold in the bulk-food aisle of the grocery store. The Girl Scouts have an image to protect, and, other things being equal, this means they are more likely to be responsive to pressure. But then, that image has been earned, and critics may well find that the public would rather continue to support a favourite charitable organization than learn about a new set of ethical issues focused on the effects such support could have in far-away lands. That doesn’t mean that the anti-cookie campaign can’t get traction. It just means that when the battle is good cause versus good cause, the outcome is hard to predict, and it’s not clear whether there can even be winners.

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Hat tip to NW, for pointing me to this excellent story.

Death by Pizza Delivery: Domino’s Korea

During most of the 80’s (starting in 1984), customers of Domino’s Pizza in the U.S. enjoyed the benefits of a catchy promise of speedy delivery: Domino’s promised to deliver your pizza in “30 Minutes Or It’s Free.” The only problem: soon after the slogan was introduced, a rise in deaths due to accidents involving Domino’s drivers was noted. The assumption was that drivers were facing pressure to make good on the promise, and were therefore driving faster, which meant they were more likely to have accidents, some of which were fatal. Lawsuits ensued. Big ones. As a result, the “30 Minute” delivery promise ended back in 1991, in the U.S. But apparently the same can’t be said for Domino’s Korea.

Here’s the story, by blogger Lee Yoo Eun, blogging at Global Voices: South Korea: Backlash After ‘30 Minute’ Pizza Delivery Death

A popular Domino’s Pizza marketing strategy promising pizza delivery within 30 minutes of an order has met with a public backlash in South Korea, following the deaths of several young delivery personnel.

The Young Union, the union For Occupational and Environmental Health (FOEC) and several labor unions held a press conference on 8 February, 2011, in front of Domino’s Pizza’s headquarters in South Korean capital Seoul, pressuring the company to abolish the ‘30 Minute’ delivery system….

Here’s another version of the story, from the Korea Times: Quick delivery jeopardizes drivers.

In often discuss the story of “30 Minutes or It’s Free,” as it played out in the U.S., in my business ethics class. I use the case to illustrate 3 key points:

  1. A simple business decision can have large and unforeseen consequences, ones that result in a major ethical challenge for a company. In this case, a simple (and frankly brilliant) marketing slogan resulted in Domino’s executives being called killers and the company facing multi-million dollar lawsuits.
  2. The ethical thing to do is not always obvious. We spend a lot of time chastising companies for bad behaviour, but in at least some cases it is genuinely difficult to know what to do. In the Domino’s case, my students are typically unified in the opinion that something had to be done to reduce the rate of accident-related deaths involving Domino’s drivers, but they’re typically deeply divided on a) how far the company needs to go and b) just what strategy they should adopt.
  3. Putting an ethical decision into action can be very difficult. Back in the late 80’s, there were several thousand Domino’s pizza franchises in the U.S., and tens of thousands of drivers. Any decision made by Head Office was going to have to be implemented by all those franchisees and acted on by all those drivers. Making that sort of thing happen is anything but straightforward.

As for Domino’s Korea — frankly I’m stunned to find out that the people in charge of the Domino’s brand haven’t done more to make sure that a lesson learned 20 years ago, at great expense, is reflected in their international operations.

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