Corporations, Sponsorship, and Guilt by Association

Finally, a legitimate excuse to mention Barack Obama on the Business Ethics Blog.

Obama has taken a bit of flack recently for some of the things said by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. When Wright’s racially-charged comments came to light, debate ensued over whether they reflected badly on Obama. Could Obama be guilty just by association? (See, e.g.: Obama’s ties to minister may be ‘a big problem,’ some say)

The same issue pops up in the corporate world, in terms of charitable donations and sponsorships.

One good example is the relationship (the strength of which is very much in question) between the outdoor clothing & gear company, Patagonia and the controversial direct-action environmental group, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Sea Shepherd is controversial because its tactics go far beyond the consciousness-raising goals shared by most environmental groups, and beyond even the protests, blockades and sit-ins favoured by more action-oriented environmental groups. Sea Shepherd’s tactics are much more aggressive, including from time to time the scuttling and sinking of fishing and whaling boats. And although (as this Wikipedia page points out) “there have been few reports of injuries and no reports of deaths during Sea Shepherd actions,” the brand of environmentalism Sea Shepherd espouses isn’t exactly the warm-fuzzy version of environmental-friendliness that most corporations, today, want to be associated with.

Sea Shepherd does list Patagonia among its sponsors, though the sponsorship page is low on details (saying only that “Most of the cold weather gear worn by Sea Shepherd crew comes from Patagonia.”)

For its part, (based on just this one report on a German rock-climbing site, not exactly a mainstream information channel) Patagonia denies direct, recent links to Sea Shepherd. But given the prominence of its logo on the Sea Shepherd Sponsors page, it’s a bit hard to understand why more direct clarification from Patagonia is so hard to find. (If anyone can help me with that, let me know.)

Of course, whether this is a question of guilt by association, or rather credit by association, sort of depends on your view of Sea Shepherd. But vigilanteism, particularly the potentially-deadly kind, and particularly in pursuit of goals not unanimously agreed upon, is hard to defend. Is it fair to attribute guilt-by-association to corporate sponsors of groups like Sea Shepherd? Is it fair to expect of a company like Patagonia (as critics seem to expect of Obama) not just a refusal to support controversial one-time friends, but a clear and unequivocal repudiation?
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Note: Thanks to a careful reader, I’ve now corrected an error. The posting originally referred to “a Dutch rock-climbing site.” I have corrected this to read “a German rock-climbing site.”

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