Archive for the ‘risk’ Category

Herbal Remedy Scam

It’s a quality control problem at best, and outright fraud at worst.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Guelph used genetic analysis to study a range of commercial herbal remedies and found a shocking disparity between what was on the label and what’s actually in the bottle.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the researchers looked at 44 herbal products sold by 12 companies, using DNA ‘barcode testing’ to determine what plant species were in the bottle.

The result: some products contained other generally inert species of plants (for example wheat, to which some people are allergic, and rice, to which some people are allergic), without those ingredients being listed on the label. Other products were adulterated with potentially toxic plants like St. John’s wort or senna. Others simply contained none of the active ingredient they were supposed to contain. And yet these products are commercially available at a major pharmacy chain near you.

The study didn’t name names — the study was effectively about quality control within the industry, rather than about naming-and-shaming particular companies. But it’s a damning indictment for the industry quite generally. (Just two companies among the 12 in the study sold products that were just what they said they were.)

Of course, many readers will know that this is not the first reason we’ve had to doubt the integrity of the herbal remedy industry, or the ‘natural’ health product industry more generally. As others have written elsewhere (including pharmacists with the scientific and critical-thinking chops to know the difference), Canada’s regulations regarding natural health products leave much to be desired.

But it’s nothing to laugh about. Unlike homeopathic remedies, which (unless adulterated) generally contain no active ingredients at all, herbal remedies can have actual effects, though those effects may not live up to the claims implied by their labels. Herbal remedies, while under-regulated, can at least have real biological effects. That’s a source of pride for makers of herbals, situated as they are within an alternative-medicine industry that is rife with outright fraud and delusion.

But it also means that the honest bottlers of herbal remedies should be at the front of the line, lobbying government hard for stricter regulations. Perhaps even more crucially they should be doing their best to convince the major chains that there’s a difference between them and the companies whose products failed the Guelph study so miserably. In the end, it’s as much an ethical matter as a matter of self-interest. The public deserves to be better served, and who better than those within the industry itself to make sure that it happens?

The Dark Side of the Tanning Business

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.

Bangladesh, Joe Fresh and the burden of responsibility

In Bangladesh, on Wednesday, a building collapsed, killing at least 260 people.* The factories in the building made garments for a number of global retailers, including Canada’s Joe Fresh. This weekend, I’m very likely going shopping at Joe Fresh, and with a clear conscience. People threatening to boycott the brand are woefully misguided. Their sorrow is justified; a change in their shopping habits is not.

The events in Bangladesh represent an utterly horrible loss of life. Anyone unmoved by such a tragedy is less than human. But to see this as an indictment of Joe Fresh, or of Western consumers, is a serious mistake.

So, just what happened in Bangladesh? The 8-story building that collapsed on Wednesday housed a number of garment factories, a shopping mall, and a bank. The people who died did so partly due to the fact that someone in Bangladesh made a very, very bad decision: police had ordered the building evacuated the day before, due to structural defects, but factory managers ignored that order. That was an immoral decision, and perhaps a criminal one. I hope those managers are brought to justice.

Now, yes, it’s true that the purchasing decisions of Canadian consumers are also part of the causal chain that led to those deaths. But causal connection is not the same as moral responsibility. Every event, tragic or not, is the culmination of countless contributing factors. To be part of a causal chain is not the same as causing something to happen. There is no reasonable sense in which Canadians shopping at Joe Fresh are responsible for Wednesday’s deaths.

In fact, Canadians shopping at Joe Fresh are doing a lot of good. Places like Bangladesh — people in places like Bangladesh — absolutely rely on the jobs provided by the international garment industry. That is, there are people in developing countries who only have jobs because people in the industrialized West buy clothes from retailers who subcontract to manufacturers in places like Bangladesh.

None the less, some people are expressing outrage at the fact that Bangladeshis are dying so that Canadians can have cheap clothes. Is this situation really so unique? In North America, the deadliest trade is commercial fishing, followed closely by mining and logging. Does anyone imagine that no corners are cut in those industries, no safety standards violated? So Canadians, too, are dying…dying so that Canadians can have cheap crab and haddock, cheap oil and aluminum, and cheap wood and paper products. Actually, a lot of that stuff goes for export, so Canadians are dying so that people from other countries can have those things cheaply. Such is globalization: millions of people world-wide take risks that they think are worth taking, in order to make a living, and they can do so because people on the other side of the world are willing to pay them to.

But of course, companies like Joe Fresh still have some obligation to make sure that their subcontractors are treating employees decently. And the company certainly acknowledges as much. According to a statement on the brand’s Facebook page, their parent company, Loblaws Inc. has…

“robust vendor standards designed to ensure that products are manufactured in a socially responsible way, ensuring a safe and sustainable work environment. We engage international auditing firms to inspect against these standards. We will not work with vendors who do not meet our standards.”

In other words, the company makes exactly the promise it ought to make. Of course, there’s only so much it can do to guarantee that its subcontractors won’t break the law, on the other side of the planet. But then again, there’s notoriously little any company can do to guarantee that its subcontractors won’t break the law, whether it operates on the other side of the planet or just down the street.

Has Joe Fresh done enough in this regard? It’s impossible to say from the outside. But what’s crucial, here, is to see that even an event as tragic as Wednesday’s building collapse in Bangladesh does nothing to impugn the company’s integrity. Should we ask questions? Of course we should. But these events shouldn’t make us jump to conclusions. Nor will they deter me, at least, from going shopping this weekend.

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*Note added Oct. 2013: the death toll eventually climbed to over 1,100.

Ethics of Risk Management

Business is, in many ways, all about risk. It’s about investing in R&D and in productive processes that may or may not result in products that customers want to buy. It’s about hiring people and then putting your company’s reputation into their hands. It’s about trying and doing new things, always aware of the chance of failure. Society flourishes because businesses are willing to take risks. Of course, some risks should not be taken, and others should be taken only subject to suitable safeguards. Risk, in other words, needs to be managed.

Modern risk management, as that term is used in corporate contexts, has its roots in finance and refers primarily to the management of financial risks. It relies heavily on mathematical models used for asset pricing and portfolio assessment. Banks use risk management techniques to determine how many loans and mortgages of what kinds to hand out, and on what terms, and to figure out (within regulated limits) how much capital they need to keep on hand in case depositors come calling to reclaim their deposits. This all requires careful calculations. Take too little risk, and you’ve got money sitting idle. Take too many risks and, well, you end up with what we saw back in 2008.

Last week I had the pleasure of hosting Professor John Boatright, as part of the Business Ethics Speakers Series that I run at the Ted Rogers School of Management. John is the guy who literally wrote the book on ethics in finance. He’s author of Ethics in Finance and editor of Finance Ethics: Critical Issues in Theory and Practice. There simply is no one better on issues of ethics in finance. And his topic last week was an important one: “The Ethics of Risk Management: A Post-Crisis Perspective.”

As John’s talk pointed out, the advent of modern risk management strategies is, somewhat ironically, implicated in the financial crisis of ’08-’09, from which we are still recovering. The mathematical models risk managers use made possible the popularization of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and credit default swaps (CDSs). And the fact that there were actual hard-core equations behind these instruments — which Warren Buffett “financial weapons of mass destruction” — made them seem far safer than they were. This illusion of safety encouraged very high levels of leveraging, with what we now know to be disastrous consequences.

One of the other things that John’s talk clarified for me was that there’s a kind of ambiguity in the very term “risk management.” To the public, the idea of “managing” risks sounds very much like the idea of “reducing” risks. And that, of course, sounds like a very good thing. But risk management absolutely is not the same as risk reduction. Indeed, it can be quite the opposite. Risk management is the art of finding the right level and mix of risks, the right ‘risk profile.’ What matters ethically, as John pointed out is which risks are managed, by whom, by what means, for whose benefit.

The other point from John’s talk that I want to highlight here has to do with the ‘corporatization’ of risk management. As John pointed out, business firms both encounter and create risk, and risks are encountered by both firms and by individuals in society. If, as seems to be the case, risks to individuals are increasingly being managed by corporations, we as a society need to be acutely aware of the way corporations think about risk. John quoted author Michael Power as saying that “Risk is the basis for corporations to process morality.” In other words, risk is the lens through which corporations consider and act upon their obligations.

The problem here is clear: risk is an inherently outcomes-based construct, and not everything we care about ethically is a matter of outcomes. We also care about rights and duties, and about justice in the way good and bad outcomes are distributed. If risk becomes the lens through which obligations are examined, something important is being left out. Corporate risk management, in other words, is itself a mechanism that brings risks that need to be managed.

Pipeline Whistleblowing: Getting the Ethics Right

It was reported recently that an engineer for TransCanada, Evan Vokes, has now gone public with claims that the pipeline company has been lax in the standards it applies to having its pipelines inspected.

Whistleblowing is among the most complex ethical issues in the world of business. Whistleblowers are people who demonstrate that there is — there must be — a limit to the loyalty of even a dedicated employee. Whistleblowers go outside the boundaries of their organization to report actual or immanent wrongdoing. They often prevent grievous harm, but in doing so they inevitably impugn the character of their organizations, and sometimes of their co-workers. And of course, there’s always the worry that the self-appointed whistleblower is actually just a malcontent bent on revenge. But such cases aside, whistleblowers perform an essential public service.

A few points are worth making about the TransCanada case in particular.

The first is that, at least as the story is told by the CBC, Vokes is the perfect whistleblower. He’s got the relevant expertise (he’s both a welder and an engineer) and he’s got a reputation for honesty and integrity. Further, Vokes carried out the whistleblowing properly: he proceeded in perfect ethics-textbook fashion by first making his concerns known to his superiors, and then escalating up chain of command. Only when it became clear that internal channels weren’t working did he go outside of the company to bring his concerns to the relevant regulatory agency.

Second, the fact that Vokes felt the need to blow the whistle suggests a failure of leadership within the company. According the the CBC’s report, Vokes made his concerns clear all the way up the corporate hierarchy, and everyone “right up to the chief executive officer refused to act on his complaints.” A

“It’s fine” — just like NASA’s space shuttle Challenger

The latest update to this story, of course, is that TransCanada has now temporarily shut down its Keystone pipeline, citing safety concerns.

Needed: A High-Efficiency Oil Company

A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is a hellishly complex piece of machinery. Picture a boat the length of three football fields, carrying several dozen heavily-armed aircraft into a war zone. It’s a boat with a crew of 3,200 plus an additional 2,400 involved in flying, maintaining, and launching aircraft. Oh, and it’s powered by a pair of Westinghouse A4W nuclear reactors.

As it happens, the US Navy has 10 such carriers. And on these unimaginably complex machines, errors of any significance are practically unknown. Time after time, F/A-18 Super Hornets laden with missiles are literally catapulted from the flight deck, sent out on missions, and then land again on the carrier’s super-short runway. And failure is practically unknown. This requires amazing skill on the part of pilots, but it also requires an incredible team effort, and a system built to include multiple redundant safeguards. The safety record of nuclear aircraft carriers is so good that they are now a standard example of highly-efficient, low-failure, complex systems, the kind that other complex systems should aspire to become. They are systems in which failure is simply not an option, and smart design makes sure it just doesn’t happen.

Next, let’s look at another complex system, namely an oil company and its network of pipelines. Let’s look in particular at one Canadian company, namely Enbridge. Enbridge’s pipeline system, as far as I can tell, is significantly more prone to failure than an aircraft carrier. Just under a year ago, I wrote about a leak in an Enbridge pipeline running past the tiny northern Canadian town of Wrigley. That was a small leak, but one that raised serious concerns for the local native community that eked out its living from the now-polluted land. That leak involved maybe a thousand barrels of oil. But just a year earlier, an Enbridge pipeline running through southwest Michigan spilled 20,000 barrels into a creek leading to the Kalamazoo River. And now, this past Friday, another significant leak was reported. This time, the company’s “Line 14″ spilled about a thousand barrels of crude into a field in Wisconsin. And this is just to name a few of the company’s pipelines over the last decade.

Of course, there’s no special reason to pick on Enbridge. Other companies in the oil exploration and refining industry have spotty records, too. BP is perhaps the most dramatic example that comes to mind. It was the company behind the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, and the subsequent spill that devastated a big chunk of the Gulf coast.

There’s little doubt that, for the foreseeable future, oil companies like Enbridge and BP are a practical necessity. Like it or not, our economy depends on them. They are as necessary to our economy as an aircraft carrier is to the US’s naval supremacy. But the fact that those companies are so essential is precisely the thing that dictates that they must do better. They must seek the kind of never-fail efficiency exemplified by carriers like the USS Harry S. Truman and the USS Abraham Lincoln.

There are of course important differences between an aircraft carrier and a system of pipelines. For one thing, an aircraft carrier exists in a single place, under the watchful eye of a single Commanding Officer; a pipeline can stretch for thousands of unobserved miles, necessarily subject to only infrequent inspection. For another thing, various corporate motives summed up very imprecisely by the term “the profit motive” mean that there will always be temptations for oil companies to cut corners. But the example is there, and the body of knowledge is there. Oil companies can, and must, do better.

Insider Trading and Market Integrity

Cheng Yi Liang, a chemist for the US Food and Drug Administration, has been found guilty of Insider Trading and sentenced to 5 years in prison. (I first blogged about this case back in March, when Liang was arrested.)

As it happens, the Liang verdict dovetailed nicely with the topic covered yesterday in the Management Ethics class I teach at the Ted Rogers School of Management. The class was led by a terrific guest speaker, compliance consultant and retired RBC compliance officer Georges Dessaulles.

The Liang case serves as a great example of one of the points Georges emphasized in his presentation, namely that when it comes to Insider Trading, highly-placed executives are far from the only concern. In the Freeport McMoran case in the mid-90′s, for example, the central figure was a consulting geologist, not an employee of the mining company itself. In the 2001 case related to Nortel’s acquisition of Clarify, the central figure was an executive working at a public relations firm that had a contract with Clarify. And now, in the Liang case, the guilty party not only didn’t work for the company in question, he didn’t have any contractual or other financial relationship with the company. Instead, he was a scientist at a regulatory agency. Other cases have involved administrative assistants, or even employees at companies printing corporate reports.

This highlights an important point about the ethics of insider trading. The stereotypical cases of insider trading involve executives, making use of undisclosed knowledge to gain an unfair advantage over outsiders in buying or selling stock. In taking unfair advantage, executives not only perpetrate a basic injustice, but also violate their duties to shareholders. But the kinds of cases cited above point to a different reason for the wrongness of insider trading. In the Freeport and Nortel cases, and now in the FDA case, the central figure wasn’t someone with direct obligations to corporate shareholders. There was thus no breach of fiduciary duty (at least not in the usual sense). What’s really at stake, in such cases, is the undermining of the basic principle of free-and-voluntary exchange on which the a free-market economy is based.

The challenge for organizations is to make sure that employees and contractors with access to sensitive information understand the definition of — and penalties for — insider trading. But that’s a serious challenge, especially at big companies. Better still would be for more people to understand the moral underpinnings of free markets quite generally, and to have the moral reasoning skills to figure out the rest from there.

Must the Captain Go Down With His Ship?

Italian cruise-ship Captain Francesco Schettino is in jail, following an incident that left 6 dead and (at present) 29 missing. Among the accusations levied against is that he fled the foundering vessel before it was empty. (According to maritime law, a captain doesn’t literally have to “go down with the ship,” but he or she is supposed to be the last one off after ensuring the safety of others.)

Legal requirements aside, is there an ethical obligation for a captain to risk life and limb to stay on board until the last passenger and crewmembers are off? The answer is pretty clearly “yes.” Like many jobs, the job of captaining a ship comes with a range of risks and benefits. As long as the risks were understood when the job was taken on, you’re obligated to follow through.

There’s a more general point to be made here about the nature of ethics, and about ethics education and training.

Ethics often requires of us actions that we’d rather not carry out. You should tell the truth, even when it would be more convenient not to. You should keep your promises, even when breaking them would be more profitable. This is necessarily the case: if ethics only ever required you to do things you already wanted to do, there’d be no need for ethical rules (or at least no need to think of them as rules in the prescriptive sense).

But there’s at least a superficial tension, here, with the idea that ethics should be useful. After all, if having and following an ethical code doesn’t benefit us in some way, why bother? Sure, it’s easy enough to say “The right thing to do is the right thing to do,” but a system of ethics needs some justification in terms of human well-being or it’s just not going to be very credible, not to mention stable. Indeed, some ethical systems are subject to serious criticism precisely because their implications for human well-being are negative. Yes yes, I understand that your code of honour requires you to kill the man who killed your brother, but don’t you see how crazy this all is?

So there’s got to be some connection between ethics and benefit. And it’s not enough to point to social benefit. After all, pointing out that the community benefits from me taking ethics seriously merely pushes the question of justification to a second level: why should I care about the good of the community, especially if doing so requires significant self-sacrifice?

None of this should engender skepticism or cynicism. It just means we need to think carefully about who benefits, and how, from a system of ethics.

It also means that we need to think about how we can help individuals keep the promises that it was in their interest, initially to make. Captain Schettino found it in his interest to make certain promises (albeit perhaps implicit ones) when he signed on to be captain of the Costa Concordia, but then all of a sudden found himself in a situation where it was not in his interest to keep that promise. Threats of punishment were understandably insufficient, here. Staying out of jail is no great incentive if you’re free-but-dead.

Organizations of all kinds — including especially corporations and professional associations — need to work hard to help members think of the relevant ethical rules as something more than the terms of a contract, to help members become the sorts of people who simply would never abandon ship when they are needed most.

If You Can’t Take the Heat, Get Out of the Banana Republic

Some neighbourhoods simply are not worth the trouble, and the entire nation of Ecuador may be one of them. Ecuador is a significant producer and exporter of oil (ranked 30th in the world), but it is also a place where effective rule of law is being called into question.

See this story, from Americas Forum: Chevron says rule of law no longer exists in Ecuador

James Craig, Chevron’s spokesman for Latin America, said in a recent statement that Ecuador, in the past seven years, has seen a deterioration in the administration of justice, which in his opinion began with the removal of judges of the Supreme Court in 2004….

Of course, this statement is from a corporate spokesman, so we’ll surely take it with a grain of salt. But those claims are not unsupported. See for instance this report (only slightly dated) on Ecuador from Global Integrity Report: Ecuador, 2008. Ecuador ranked 127th on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index for 2010.

So, what should Chevron do? The short, harsh answer: get out of Ecuador. Multinational companies all need to acknowledge that there are some places where they simply cannot — should not — do business. For most kinds of companies, that includes war zones. But it also includes places where the kind of background conditions that make a market economy possible, including stable rule of law, do not exist. Naturally, corporate risk managers keep a close eye on such things. The risk that some cowboy government official is going to appropriate your earnings or toss managers into jail on trumped-up charges is not one to take lightly. But there’s also an ethical risk, here. The standard, conservative ethical rule for companies is that they should go about their business without force, fraud, or deception, and within the boundaries of the law. But that rule of thumb only makes sense — even a little bit of sense — where a reliable legal system exists. When the rule of law is in serious doubt, the preconditions for the ethical conduct of business simply do not obtain. Not only do such situations jeopardize the interests of a whole range of stakeholders; they eliminate the crucial fulcrum of ethical corporate decisions.

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Hat tip to legal scholar Errol Mendes (a.k.a. @3mendous on Twitter) for pointing me to this story.

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.

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