Archive for the ‘values’ Category
Is labelling foods as “organic” a positive thing or not? The Environmental Working Group certainly thinks so. To support this notion, the EWG has just released its annual “dirty dozen” list, consisting of fruits and veggies that are especially high in pesticide residue.
But check out this recent study, which suggests that seeing and thinking about organic foods can make people less ethical. The researchers report that test subjects asked to look at and rank (basically, to focus on) either a bunch of organic-labelled foods or to look at and rank either comfort foods (e.g., ice cream) or a more neutral food (e.g., mustard). Following this, the test subjects were given tests to evaluate a) their willingness to help a needy stranger, and b) the harshness of their evaluation of various apparent moral transgressions. The result: people exposed to organic foods were both less likely to help others, and more likely to be harshly moralistic.
This is an interesting result in its own right, but it has particular implications for marketing. Very roughly, the study suggests that marketing produce as organic can have negative effects on consumers’ attitudes and behaviour. That is, the study says nothing negative about organic food itself, or about consuming it. The implication is specifically for labelling it and promoting it as organic.
Of course, we can’t immediately condemn such marketing based on this kind of evidence. It may well be that the net effect of selling lots of organic food outweighs the effect such marketing has on people’s attitudes and behaviour. But at very least, this should make us stop and think.
Now, it’s highly unlikely that this effect is specific to organic foods. Presumably, labelling food as organic here is relevant because for many people that label implies something virtuous. So the implication is that promoting foods (or presumably other products) in terms of virtue could be a mistake.
In general, labels that indicate a product’s characteristics help consumers get what they’re looking for. This is especially important with regard to characteristics that can’t be seen with the naked eye, including key characteristics of most so-called ethical products. You can’t tell by looking at an apple, for instance, whether it’s been sprayed with pesticides — unless, of course, you see the “Certified Organic” label on it. Labels of various kinds help people get what they value, and in that way help achieve the promise of a free market.
The alternative to using labels to help people find products that match their own values is to rely on government regulation and industry “best practices.” If there were widespread agreement that organic foods really were better, ethically, they there would be some justification for having government use legislation to drive non-organic foods from the market. We rely on labels and third-party certifications precisely because there isn’t sufficient consensus to warrant a general standard. But the study described above highlights one of the costs of the path we’ve chosen. By moralizing the marketplace we may, ironically enough, be encouraging immoral behaviour.
Thanks to Andrew Potter for pointing me to the study discussed here.
So-called “ethical” products are in the news again. This time, the controversy is over whether the fairtrade movement should expand to include certification of large farms.
A controversy like this serves to highlight the complexity of the notion of an “ethical” product. After all, any product has many different characteristics, and hence many different dimensions of ethical concern. Just for starters, two food products of the same kind (say, two different brands of coffee) might vary in terms of whether they are FairTrade certified or not, whether they are organic or not, whether they are from countries with bad human-rights records, and so on. So the choice we face isn’t just between the ethical brand and the “other” brand; it might well be between two brands with different combinations of more, or less, ethical characteristics.
So here’s a thought experiment. Imagine a world in which mass customization technology make it possible for you, by purchasing online, to hyper-customize the products you buy, according to various ethical characteristics. Imagine you could choose, with a click of your mouse, any or all of a range of characteristics. And to make things more interesting (and likely more realistic) let’s say that each additional characteristic you ask for implies some additional cost. After all, some “ethical” production processes are costly, and some certification schemes are costly. So let’s imagine, say, that each additional ethical characteristic you opt for results in a modest 2% increase in the price of the product.
Given the opportunity to buy such customized products, which ethical characteristics would you choose to pay for?
Consider, for example, what you would choose faced with a website that let you order coffee and gave you the following options:
Or again, imagine being offered the following choice with regard to the cotton from which your newly-tailored shirt is to be made:
This thought experiment raises several questions. For you, the consumer, it raises the question of which combination of ethical values you really want — and would be willing to pay for — in your purchases. For purveyors of “ethical” consumer products, it first raises doubts about the term itself, and about how confident companies can be that they’ve already identified “the” characteristics that make up an ethical product. Consider the light this sheds on the case of so-called “ethical veal,” as discussed in a recent story from the Guardian. Sure, the veal referred to in that story is ethically better in at least one way. But have the people selling it cognizant of the range of characteristics that different people regard as essential to making a food product truly ethical?
Of course, the shopping scenario imagined above is science fiction for now. You can buy customized shoes online, and customized chocolate bars, but as far as I know foods customized ethically are not yet on sale. If they were, would that make the choice faced by ethical consumers easier, or harder?
A recent story in the NY Times provides some encouraging anecdotes about companies that are moving to take greater responsibility for recycling. Companies like Starbucks and Coca-Cola, for instance, are finding new — and in some cases profitable — ways to take responsibility for the waste that their product packaging generally becomes. More recycling generally means less waste, less energy used, and less pollution.
Waste and pollution are business-ethics topics about which there is some room for agreement between the moralist and the economist. The moralist points out that it’s unfair to make innocent bystanders suffer the ill effects of your factory’s pollution. The economist points out that market inefficiency can result when costs, financial or otherwise, are not internalized (i.e., when costs are instead imposed on innocent third parties).
But an economically-savvy point of view must also recognize that there is in fact a socially-efficient level of waste and pollution, and that that level is not zero. Waste and pollution could only be driven to zero by shutting down industry (of all kinds) altogether, and that would have disastrous effects. In other words, we would have to sacrifice things we care about, like the ability to raise world-wide standards of living, in order to reduce pollution and waste to zero.
Consider this analogy: economists likewise sometimes argue, rightly I think, that there is an efficient level of crime. The methods by which crime could be driven to zero are both enormously invasive and enormously costly. It is not efficient — not a good use of resources — to drive crime to zero, even if we think it technically possible.
So waste and pollution, we might say, are always bad, but not always wrong. They are features of a system the overall productivity of which is an enormous boon to humankind. It would be crazy to say that gains in productivity must be sought at any cost, but it is likewise crazy to value anything else (e.g., the environment) so highly that it drowns out all considerations of efficiency.
Now none of this tells us about whether particular efforts at waste reduction or pollution abatement are good or bad. But it helps frame the issue. What we’re looking for is the right level of pollution and waste, and that level is not zero. It is also likely to shift over time, as affluence grows and technology evolves, and as companies like Coke and Starbucks and a thousand anonymous start-ups find new ways to make environmental protection efficient, in the broadest, most ethically-significant sense of the word.
Hating the rich comes pretty naturally to a lot of people. And so it’s not surprising that a widely-reported study apparently demonstrating that the rich are less ethical resulted in a combination of glee and eye-rolling proclamations that “we already knew that.”
There’s plenty to say about the study — lots of people (mostly in the comments accompanying various reports on the study) have pointed to what they say are methodological weaknesses related to sample size, how participants were chosen, what kinds of tests are taken as proxies for a lack of ethics, etc.
But if we take as given the conclusion that the rich do behave less ethically (by certain measures) this raises the question of what causes such behaviour on the part of the rich. To their credit, the study’s authors at least gesture at subtlety: “This finding is likely to be a multiply determined effect involving both structural and psychological factors.” But the authors do spend an awful lot of time discussing what they clearly take to be the key causal factor, namely greed. “Greed,” the authors write, “is a robust determinant of unethical behaviour.”
But the role that greed plays is in fact very far from obvious. The citations given by the authors are not entirely compelling, and as I’ve pointed out before, there’s considerable evidence (found primarily in the literature on criminology) that greed is not a key explanatory factor in much wrongdoing. Wrongdoing is more generally explained by the capacity for rationalization, for telling oneself compelling stories about why one’s own behaviour isn’t wrong after all.
It’s also worth pointing out the more general problem with establishing causal relationships. Note that the title of the study says only that “Higher social class predicts increased unethical behaviour” [emphasis added]. But the headline writers for various news outlets are not so careful: Wired, for example, tells us that “Wealth Could Make People Unethical” [emphasis added]. And the distinction is important. Owning an ashtray may predict increased tendency toward lung cancer, but we’re pretty sure that ashtrays don’t cause lung cancer. So is being rich making people unethical, or is being unethical a route to getting rich, or are both the result of some third factor, like ambition?
What’s the practical upshot of all this? That, too, depends on the direction of causation. If being rich makes less ethical, then you have a reason — perhaps not a compelling one — to worry about the effect that your own increasing wealth might have on your morals. And, given what I said above about the role of rationalization, you ought to watch yourself for signs that you’re telling yourself those comforting little stories that make you feel better about behaviour that you know, deep down, is unethical.
If, on the other hand, being less ethical is a route to riches — well, that points in a couple of different directions. For individuals, the dangerous and cynical conclusion is that you need to learn to bend the rules to get ahead. But from a systems point of view, the implication is quite different: how do we design institutions so that ethical, socially-constructive behaviour is rewarded, and that socially-destructive but individually-profitable behaviour is not?
The third possibility — that some third factor, like ambition is the crucial causal factor — has implications also. This possibility raises the question of social tradeoffs. What if a certain amount of anti-social behaviour is the quid pro quo of entrepreneurship and creativity? Is the amount of social good done by ambitious people sufficient to make us tolerate a certain amount of unethical behaviour? History is full of accounts of crummy human beings with the vaulting ambition to produce great works of art, literature, and science. Steve Jobs was, by all accounts, a difficult guy to say the least, and had a habit of treating people very, very badly throughout his career. But then, he also gave the world a lot of ‘insanely great,’ innovative products.
Of course, whether such trade-offs are worthwhile is a world-class philosophical problem, the answer to which is far from clear. But what’s much more clear is that individuals can’t rightly help themselves to the relevant justifications. We can’t excuse our own bad behaviour by pointing to our productivity. We are all far, far too likely to overestimate our own social contributions, and to underestimate our own foibles and peccadilloes. And that, it seems to me, is the root of a much more likely explanation of patterns of unethical behaviour than is the simplistic assumption — an assumption that all too often simply reaffirms a cynical worldview — that it all really boils down to greed.
I’m just back from the University of Redlands, just outside of Los Angeles, where I spoke at the wonderful Banta Center for Business, Ethics and Society. The topic of my talk there was “Responsibilities in the Blogosphere,” but the key themes of that talk apply pretty directly to the world of business more generally.
One of the key themes had to do with the tension between a focus on individual decision-making on one hand and a focus on institutional design on the other, between a focus on individual responsibilities and a focus on how Internet giants like Google and Facebook construct online worlds that shape our behaviour.
There’s an awful lot of focus — too much, in my opinion — on individual decision making in ethics. In fact, a focus on individual decision-making is kind of the default, both in philosophical ethics and in more applied areas. The key questions, for many people, are general questions like “How should I behave?” “How should I resolve an ethical dilemma?” and “What factors should I take into consideration in ethical decision-making?”
And to be sure, that kind of focus makes for some great after-dinner speeches. The focus on the individual is empowering: “it all comes down to you.” “Your choices matter.” “We can do better, if each of us just changes how we think.” “It’s all about integrity.” And so on. More than that, individual ethical dilemmas really do have a huge impact on individuals, and so it behooves those of us in the ethics biz to do something to offer some guidance. (One modest contribution of mine to this area is my Guide to Moral Decision Making.)
But there’s a real sense in which the focus on the individual is a distraction. Individuals will make the decisions they make, and those decisions will in large part be determined by forces that are a) psychological and cultural, and b) institutional.
So the real focus should be on institutional design, on devising institutions to foster the right kinds of behaviours. And I’m talking about institutions in the broadest sense, which includes not just corporate frameworks and governance structures, but also traditions and norms and social conventions.
Greater attention to institutional design is more than just a remedy to the excessive (and perhaps futile) attention paid to individual decision-making. It changes the way we frame discussion of ethics in that it makes it clear that business ethics isn’t just a microcosm of everyday ethics. It is instead a matter of using human ingenuity to build ways of doing things that suit the situation at hand: devising rules and norms that put reasonable constraints on human behaviour, to make sure that business stays mutually advantageous. But we’re not building entirely from scratch: rules and other normative institutions in the world of business still have to be ones that can be understood and applied by the human beings who inhabit that world. The software, in other words, has to match the hardware.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against thinking about individual decision-making. I teach a course on critical thinking, and I think all of us can learn to think more critically about ethical issues in business, to avoid certain well-known fallacious arguments, and so on. But the emphasis on design helps makes clear that ethics in business is a realm for innovation, and isn’t just a matter of importing into the world of commerce the values you learned at your mother’s knee.
Note: Some of the thinking here was inspired by a conversation with my friend & former student, Garrett Mac Sweeney).
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?
Here’s an example. If you like salmon, and if you’re the sort of consumer who wants to eat ethically, should you buy organic salmon or buy wild salmon? After all, there’s a huge effort these days to promote organic foods as ethical — gentler on the earth, and so on. Of course, others aren’t so sure that there’s much benefit to organic foods, and some even argue that the organic label is more a status symbol than anything else.
Now what about wild vs farmed? Some people think that farmed salmon is always bad. Others, like food-policy expert James McWilliams, argue that for whatever its current flaws, farmed fish provides our best hope for a future that includes significant amounts of protein at acceptable environmental costs. Eating wild fish, on the other hand, puts pressure on fragile wild populations.
But still, there are plenty of people who are dedicated to eating organic, and plenty of people who are quite insistant upon eating only wild fish.
The problem is, you can’t have it both ways. Wild salmon cannot, by definition, be organic, because it’s impossible to control what wild salmon eats. It can only be truly organic if it’s raised in captivity. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
This is just one tiny example of the challenges of ethical consumerism. Any given product can embody any number of incommensurable values — values that can’t just be added up to arrive at a total “ethics quotient.” The same problem applies to wind power (which produces no air pollution but kills birds) and oil from Canada’s oil sands. (which is produced in a democracy but is environmentally-dodgy).
Of course, none of that means that it’s not worth some effort to try to buy conscientiously. It just means that, as often as not, values-based consumerism is going to mean purchasing according to values that matter to you, rather than hoping to buy in a way that is ‘truly ethical,’ in some grander sense.
There’s been discussion lately (constantly, in fact) about whether President Obama is “pro-business” or “anti-business.” What commentators generally mean by that is whether Obama is sufficiently sympathetic to the needs of the business “community,” or rather excessively sympathetic to the wants of Big Business. A lot turns here on what we mean by business. Confusion about that muddles discussion of business ethics, too.
Confusions about business ethics abound. Some people, for instance, think business ethics is about the pursuit of sainthood in commercial domains, a definition which makes the field an eminently unpromising endeavour. Others mistakenly associate the term “ethics” with a narrow range of limits on personal behaviour, things like accepting bribes. Still others seem to think that the word only applies to big corporations. All of that is wrong, and starts discussions of business ethics off on the wrong foot.
If you want to understand the scope of business ethics, it helps, as a starting point, to begin by looking at what business itself is. Here’s my informal, non-textbooky definition of “business”:
Business is the activity of making stuff or doing stuff for other people, in return for money (or in exchange for other stuff).
That’s it. That’s all business is, fundamentally. What motivates those involved is another question. So is how they behave. Which brings us to ethics.
Business ethics is about what you can and cannot do in the process of doing business. What kinds of behaviours are good or bad, right or wrong, virtuous or vicious, in a context in which we are all trying to make a living?
I think this way of explaining business ethics is useful for a many reasons, but mostly because it’s non-confrontational. It ought to reassure — and hence draw into the discussion — the business community. As a business ethicist, I’m not poking my nose into the world of commerce to tell people there that they have to stop pursuing profits. Far from it. Profits are great — go for it! I’m just here to talk about what reasonable limits there might be on profit-seeking activity.
It also reminds those who are critical of “business” that what they are actually critical of is certain business practices, certain ways of doing business. “Business” isn’t synonymous with “Wall Street.” The idea of being “anti business” verges on incoherence, given this understanding of what business is.
Of course, the right understanding of business is only a start. But it’s an awfully good start.
(You can check out my more formal definition of business ethics here.)
It’s attractive, but very dangerous, to try to calculate a ‘bottom line’ for a firm’s social or environmental performance. Attractive, because key stakeholders are increasingly interested in knowing those kinds of details. But the main danger should be obvious: there’s just no way to add up the disparate factors that make up a firm’s social or environmental performance. How do you add together litres-of-water-used plus hectares-of-habitat-destroyed? On the social performance side, how do you sum up number-of-women-in-senior-management plus fair-trade-contracts signed?
The answer of course is that you cannot. You can’t add up things that are represented in different units of measure. That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t track and report these various numbers; but it casts a dim light on the prospects of arriving at a global assessment of a firm’s social or economic performance.
Unless, of course, you simply put a dollar figure on everything, in which case the math becomes quite easy.
That’s what shoemaker Puma has done, with its new Environmental Profit & Loss Account (E P&L). They’ve attached a dollar value to their greenhouse gas Emissions and their water consumption, and compared that to the dollar value of the shoes they produce. And, interestingly, they’re publicizing the fact that, environmentally, they’re in the red. They extract more from the environment than they provide to consumers. Environmentally, they’re operating at a loss.
Now, in standard terms, any firm that uses more (in dollars) than it puts out (in dollars) is going to go out of business pretty quickly. But as Puma’s Jochen Zeitz points out, that’s not the case for many environmental inputs because so many environmental inputs are unpriced — that is, they cost a company nothing. Pollution, for example, when unregulated, costs a company nothing, and when under-regulated costs the company less than the cost such pollution imposes on others. So what Puma has done is put a dollar value on these things so that they can figure out what their environmental bottom line would be, if they actually had to pay for all they consume and all they emit.
There are two key problems with such attempts to calculate an environmental bottom line this way. One is practical: there just aren’t uncontroversial ways to put a dollar figure on every unpriced environmental input. Certainly there are people who can provide methods for doing so; but that doesn’t mean there’s a clear right way to do it.
The other problem is, well, philosophical. It’s not at all clear that everything we want to say about environmental ethics can be summed up in terms of economic impact. What’s the dollar value of the loss of a species? Is the value of beautiful scenery really captured by summing up how much each of us would be willing to pay to preserve it?
Still, Puma deserves credit for this rather striking bit of transparency. Even though the “E P&L” is a pretty incomplete picture, it nonetheless does tell us something about the company’s overall environmental impact, and its commitment to doing better.
(Thanks to Andrew Crane for pointing me to the Puma story.)
There’s plenty in the news these days about the supposed virtues of “buying local.” Buying local usually means buying from small businesses. As I’ve argued before, in at least some cases buying local also means opting for small-scale, inefficient production processes. And in other cases, it means an unhealthy kind of insulation from the outside world.
But what about the virtues of specifically local ownership, when the ownership in question is ownership of what is otherwise a standard-issue department store, replete with goods ‘Made in China,’ as the stereotype goes?
The New York Times recently reported on an effort by a small town in upstate New York to ensure its residents have access to some sort of local department store. When the local Ames department store went out of business a few years back, residents of Saranac Lake — pop. 5,041 — took matters into their own hands. They raised the capital, at $100/share, to open their own department store.
It’s a charming story, and an interesting experiment, but we ought to exercise some caution before attaching too much significance to it.
First, it will be tempting to see this as radical re-visioning of modern capitalism. To see examples of such a temptation, see the 2004 Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein documentary, The Take, about the takeover of a defunct Argentinian factory by its former employees. Lewis and Klein portray that takeover as an example of the pursuit of a real alternative to capitalism — despite the fact that the cooperatively-run factory is still buying inputs on the open market, selling goods on the open market, and so on.
Were it not for movies like The Take, it might go without saying that innovations in ownership structure don’t eliminate the fundamental challenges of capitalism, and certainly don’t eliminate the standard ethical issues that face all businesses. The department store in Saranac Lake is — setting aside a few nods to local sourcing — just a regular department store. It’s got employees, so it will face questions about how those employees are treated. It’s smaller than your typical Walmart, but it will still face questions (or at least it should) about where its products come from, the conditions under which they’re manufactured, and so on. And its managers will still face questions about how to balance the good of the community as a whole with their obligation to be fiscally responsible. And so on.
Not that we need to be entirely cynical about the Saranac Lake experiment, and others like it. There’s at least a prima facie case to make for the significance of local ownership. Managers of a locally-owned store have at least some sense of what kinds of things shareholders would want them to do, and hence seem less likely to violate the trust placed in them. When you know your shareholders by name, you can ask them what they want, and they can tell you what obligations they feel to the community, and they can then ask you, their representative, to make good on those obligations.
In the end, I think experiments in capitalism are good. Indeed, the way it fosters experimentation is one of the great virtues of capitalism. We ought to keep a careful eye on such experiments, both for what we can learn about their particular virtues, and for what we can learn about the nature and structure of capitalism more generally.