Archive for the ‘boycott’ Category

SodaStream in the West Bank

Controversy continues to bubble over the SodaStream countertop carbonator. The popular home gadget — used to turn regular tap water into a variety of fizzy drinks — has generated controversy due to the fact that SodaStream operates a manufacturing plant in the occupied West Bank. For some, raging against the SodaStream is just part of a larger effort to boycott Israeli products, or at least products made in the occupied territories. They point out that Israeli settlement in those territories is illegal under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and has been declared illegal by the International Court of Justice.

None the less, it is probably tempting for many to shrug their shoulders at the whole thing. Many North Americans without a partisan tie to the issue may just think of the conflict between Israel and Palestine as one of “those” conflicts, “over there.” Consider: for the average middle-aged North American, it’s a conflict that has been making headlines for literally our entire lives, with both sides apparently taking turns at acting badly and no end in sight. It’s understandable if a few of us consider it a wash, declining to take sides and staring blankly when the topic comes up.

SodaStream’s spokesperson, incidentally, is none other than Scarlett Johansson. The Jewish Daily Forward referred to Johansson’s affiliation with the company as an unhelpful ‘normalizing’ of the Israeli occupation. After all, what could be more normal and peaceful than opening up a factory and offering people employment? There’s a sense in which that might be an understatement: building factories on occupied land — any occupied land — could easily be thought of as an act of war.

On the other hand, as defenders of the company point out, the factory is giving jobs to a few hundred Palestinians, and giving someone a job is hardly an act of aggression. For that matter, in most parts of the world it is acknowledged that commerce is generally conducive to peace. The more prosperous people are — roughly, the more they have to lose — the less likely they are to engage in warfare.

Does it matter, either way? From the point of view of outcomes, it’s hard to see much value in avoiding buying a SodaStream, even given a principled objection to operating factories in occupied territory. Your purchase (roughly $80 – $120) isn’t buying guns, or barbed wire. And the fraction-of-a-fraction of the purchase price that ends up contributing to the company’s bottom line isn’t going to either keep SodaStream in business or put them out of it. Your purchase, in other words, is trivial.

But isn’t refusal to buy a SodaStream another example of the growing, and generally positive, trend toward conscious consumerism? It arguably is, but in fact the benefits of conscious consumerism are not as obvious as many would have you think. As my friend, Professor Alexei Marcoux, argues, refusing to do business with someone because you disagree with their values is a dangerous road to go down. Given the huge number of moral disagreements in the world, we should think twice about becoming the sort of people who let such disagreements get in the way of engaging in mutually beneficial trade. That’s not a knock-down argument against any and all principled refusals to do business, but it’s a point worth making.

Now, the conflict between Israel and Palestine is no garden-variety disagreement. But that might just be the point. It’s not at all clear that we should want a controversy so bitter, and so protracted, to occupy our purchasing decisions.

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.

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

Which Oil is the More Ethical Oil?

It’s a clever marketing strategy. But is there really such a thing as ethical oil?

In today’s National Post, the Fraser Institute‘s Mark Milke argues that there is, and that “the ethical oil tag is useful shorthand for why Canada’s oil is preferable to that extracted elsewhere.” But “preferable” is a pretty grand, global conclusion. It implies that, all told, Canada’s oil is better, ethically. And that may well be, but it’s certainly not obvious. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a patriotic Canadian, proud of my country and its accomplishments. But I’m also a critical thinker, and a critical thinker can’t accept unreflectively a conclusion that happens to coincide with his own biases. Indeed, the fact that Milke’s conclusion conforms so neatly to my own biases is a strong reason for me to look at his argument more closely.

His argument is basically that Canada’s oil is ethically preferable to the oil produced in other places, considering especially places with serious histories of violating human rights.

OK, so let’s try it out. Let’s look at a rough sketch of the perceived negative ethical implications of oil from the top 10 countries listed by oil production….

Russia — widespread political & economic corruption;
Saudi Arabia — oppressive regime; human rights abuses;
United States — capital punishment; crazy war on drugs; irresponsible financial institutions;
Iran — human rights violations; insane political leaders;
China — human rights violations;
Canada — environmental degradation; poor treatment of indigenous peoples;
Mexico — widespread corruption; ongoing drug war;
United Arab Emirates — undemocratic;
Brazil — crushing poverty; immense social inequality;
Kuwait — undemocratic; human trafficking and abuse of migrant workers.

Feel free to add your own potential points of criticism to the list. And, of course, you can add significant environmental concerns to the worries for all oil-producing nations. That goes with the turf.

Now we absolutely must not make the mistake of treating this like a checklist, or treating all of the ethical “bads” listed above as equally bad. They’re not. And the other problem with this list is that it presumes that the only alternatives are various countries’ oil. Presumably much of the criticism of tar-sand oil isn’t that it’s so environmentally-evil that it’s ethically worse than, say, Saudi oil. Rather, the criticism has to be that tar-sand oil is worse than renewable energy sources that we ought to be developing, like solar and wind and geothermal.

So while I think the “ethical oil” label is rather, well, crude, I think the people promoting that label are at least doing us the unintentional service of reminding us that it’s far from clear what counts as an ethical source of energy. (If you use slave labour to build a wind turbine, is that an ethical source of energy?) As my friend Andrew Crane points out there are many dimensions along which to evaluate the ethics of any product — including not just the intrinsic properties of the product but also things like the process of production and nation of origin. That certainly applies to oil. I just wish I could believe that the people pushing the “ethical oil” label for my country’s oil were doing it to advance the debate, rather than to score points in it.

Update: Take a hew poll on this topic, here: Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?

Ethical Oil: Choose Your Poison

There’s oil, and then there’s oil. Right? Or is there only, you know, oil? Does it matter, ethically, where the oil we consume comes from?

That issue has arisen very recently and caused a minor diplomatic dust-storm: a Canadian ad offering a moral critique of Saudi Arabian oil specifically has apparently offended the Saudis, who have asked that the ads be taken off the air.

See this summary, by John Terauds for the Toronto Star: Canadian ethical oil ad stirs Saudi ire

A Canadian-made television ad that speaks out against oil imported from Saudi Arabia has raised the ire of the Middle Eastern nation, prompting it to send a threatening legal notice to broadcaster CTV.

The 30-second ad, produced by Toronto-based, focuses on discrimination against women in the conservative Muslim country….

But the ad in question isn’t just anti-Saudi oil; it’s a defence, by means of contrast, of good ol’ Canadian oil, derived primarily from the oilands (a.k.a. tarsands) of Alberta. Yes, the same oilsands that have themselves generated so much criticism on environmental grounds. Now it’s certainly not the first time someone has been accused of greenwashing the tarsands. But to slam Saudi oil as unethical in order to proclaim tarsands the ‘ethical alternative’ really does strain credulity.

Now the critique of Saudi oil isn’t entirely without merit. Saudi cultural standards for the status and treatment of women are ethically indefensible. But the “ethical oil” claim for the oilsands is a serious stretch, at least if it’s supposed to point to a bright and clear difference not just in particular ethically-salient characteristics, but in overall ethical goodness.

In principle, we could look at this as a matter of “choose your poison.” Do you want the oil that’s associated with human rights violations, or the oil that’s associated with environmental destruction? Interesting dilemma, in principle. But for most of us, it’s a moot point: oil (and the gas that comes from it) is an undifferentiated commodity, and we don’t get to choose based on nation-of-origin. So it’s not like the ad in question is really intended to help consumers make more ethical consumption choices.

More likely, what the group behind the ad is doing is the rhetorical equivalent of fracking, injecting the novel term “ethical oil” into existing debates over the oilsands, not because the term actually makes any sense, but simply in the hopes of stirring something up.

Update: Take a hew poll on this topic, here: Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?

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.


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.

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

Should Celebrities Regret Singing for Gadhafi’s Family?

I blogged nearly two weeks ago about the Ethics of Doing Business in Libya. The concern there was about the ethics of involvement in Libya by, well, “businesses” in the traditional, i.e., corporate, sense of that word. But the controversy that emerged short after that, and that continues still, concerns high-profile members of the entertainment business — celebrities like Usher, 50 Cent, and Mariah Carey. Basically, it has come to light that a whole fistful of such stars have, at various times, done private concerts for members of the Gadhafi family. And now, in light of the continuing violence in Libya, most of those stars are expressing regret and doing things like donating the money to charity. (For details, see Public consequences of pop stars’ private gigs, by By Reed Johnson and Rick Rojas for the Los Angeles Times.)

A few people have pointed out that the timing of the celebs’ crisis of conscience is just a little bit off. Libya has been a dictatorship for decades, and its leader has been a vicious madman just as long. As Tim Cavanaugh wrote on his blog at Reason, “Even assuming Qaddafi is so toxic you can’t with sound conscience take his dinars, that didn’t just become the case a few weeks ago.” If it’s right to give the money back now, it was likely wrong to take it in the first place.

But we can also question whether anyone does, or should, give much of a hoot over where these celebs sing, or for whom. The LA Times quotes Sting — a star with a reputation for charity work and activism — as defending having sung for the daughter of Uzbekistan dictator Islam Karimov:

Sting addressed criticism saying he was “well aware of the Uzbek president’s appalling reputation in the field of human rights as well as the environment. I made the decision to play there in spite of that.” He added, “I have come to believe that cultural boycotts are not only pointless gestures, they are counterproductive, where proscribed states are further robbed of the open commerce of ideas and art and as a result become even more closed, paranoid and insular.”

The man has a point. Though it may sound like a self-interested argument, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.

(Cavanaugh’s blog entry has a wonderful quote from, of all people, Adolf Hitler, who shrugged off artists behaving in ways that might have taken by him to be treasonous: “I don’t take any of that seriously. We should never judge artists by their political views. The imagination they need for their work deprives them of the ability to think in realistic terms.”)

But this leads me wonder: just what is the objection to singers singing for dictators? Is the money the problem, or is it having sung for (or more generally having done business with, or having provided a service for) an evil man’s family? Consider: if the money really is the problem — i.e., if this really is a case of filthy lucre — then donating the money to charity really does utterly absolve the stars in question of any blame. Or at least it would if the timing weren’t so questionable. Singing for free would also be OK. Indeed, if the money is all that matters, then stars might have a positive obligation to sing for wealthy tyrants and give the money to charity. After all, what could be better than squeezing a few million out of a mad dictator’s family in order to do something good with it? And if singing for free (or singing for money and donating it to charity) isn’t OK, then that seems to imply that the money isn’t the problem either.

The Oil Sands, and the Battle of the Boycotts

Alberta's Oil Sands (map)The Athabasca oil sands (in Alberta, Canada) are not pretty. But they are vast, constituting one of the largest deposits of oil in the world — something in the range of 150 billion barrels, enough to help make Canada a net exporter of oil.

The oil sands (also known, colloquially and sometimes pejoratively, as the “tar sands”) are also environmentally controversial. The process of extracting oil from oil sands is not a clean one; it has a significant impact on land, air, and water. In fact, the process is so messy that it is only worth doing when the price of oil is relatively high, as it is right now. For environmental groups and other critics, the oil sands are just not worth it.

It’s worth noting that the oil sands do have their defenders. Matt Ridley, for example, in his recent book, The Rational Optimist, argues that the oil sands are a much more sane solution to current energy needs than things like wind (too unreliable and too little output) and biofuels (wasteful use of land).

Back in July, two US-based groups (Forest Ethics and Corporate Ethics International) called for a boycott of Alberta as a tourism destination. (See the Financial Post story, here.) More recently, though, the boycott has expanded to include a number of American retailers who have promised to refuse to use any petroleum products from the oil sands. See the Scientific American story, by Tina Casey, Boycott of Petroleum Products from Alberta Tar Sands Gathers Steam:

In a sign of things to come for corporate activism, The Gap, Timberland, Levi Strauss and Walgreens have just joined Whole Foods and Bed, Bath and Beyond in a boycott of petroleum products sourced from the notorious Alberta Tar Sands. As reported by Bob Weber of The Canadian Press, Federal Express has also adopted a policy that appears to lead toward joining the boycott….

(A more recent story suggests that Levi Strauss is not, in fact, participating in the boycott.)

A few points:

First, I’m generally skeptical about boycotting an entire jurisdiction (as the original boycott of Alberta tourism seemed to intend) on the grounds that you don’t like one particular business there. It’s entirely unclear how boycotting Alberta tourism was supposed to convince the government of the province to shut down the oil sands. (Note that while tourism is not exactly trivial in the Albertan economy, neither is it crucial. And besides, international visitors to Alberta account for just 7% of the province’s tourism.) Note also that the principle supposedly at play here doesn’t generalize very well. If you don’t like Walmart, do you boycott Arkansas, where Walmart is headquartered? Is anyone calling for a boycott of the U.K.? After all that’s where BP is based.

But I’m even more interested in the corporate boycott by Whole Foods etc.

As this opinion piece points out, anyone thinking of boycotting oil from the oil sands needs to think about what they’re choosing instead:

Where are they going to buy their gas from, if not Canada?

Saudi Arabia? Could there be a more unethical barrel of oil than one from that racist, misogynistic, terror-sponsoring dictatorship? Venezuela, to enrich strongman Hugo Chavez? Iran, with its nuclear plans?

In other words, if you’re really going to get picky about where your oil comes from, you’d better just stop using it at all.

The same opinion piece (by Ezra Levant) pointed out that many of the companies participating in the boycott are not exactly angels themselves. Walgreens (a pharmacy chain) was fined $35 million for defrauding Medicaid. And pretty much everyone knows that The Gap has been the target of its fair share of criticism over the labour practices at the third-world factories that produce the clothes it sells. Now, being hypocritical doesn’t mean being wrong, but it might well lessen these companies’ moral authority somewhat. (And notice that Levant suggests a tit-for-tat boycott of The Gap, etc., by Albertans.)

Next, an economic point. I’m no economist, but my guess is that if the corporate boycott has any impact at all, it will be roughly as follows. The reduction in demand for oil-sands oil will reduce the price it can command. And when you lower the price of something? Yup, you make it easier for other people to buy it. So, more — not less — will end up being used.

Finally, the points above leave us with the conclusion that the corporate boycott of oil from the oil sands is largely symbolic. Well, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? I guess that depends on who is sending, and who is receiving, that symbolic message. And in this case, the message certainly isn’t going to have — indeed, can’t possibly be intended to have — any effect on decision-makers in Alberta. So the only real possibility is that Whole Foods, The Gap, etc., are sending a message to consumers. What message? “We’re green,” I guess, or “We care.” But the message being heard by anyone looking at this carefully is, “We haven’t thought this through.”

[Thanks to MW for suggesting I blog on this.]

Boycotting BP is Futile and Unethical

Do not boycott BP.

I know you’re mad. I am too. But a boycott won’t accomplish any of the things you’re trying to accomplish. And it’s unethical.

The push to boycott BP (as a punitive response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, obviously) comes from the advocacy group Public Citizen, which encourages you to: “Boycott BP: Take the Beyond BP Pledge today!” There’s also the inevitable Facebook group, Boycott BP.

This move is well-intentioned, but entirely wrong-headed, for a number of reasons.

The first reason has to do with alternatives. Sharon Begley at Newsweek, with the sarcastic title “Boycott BP! Because it’s much better to give your money to Exxon.” It’s highly unlikely that those who participate in this boycott are going to eschew gas purchases altogether. With a few exceptions, they’re much more likely to simply start buying their gas at the non-BP station down the street. And, as Begley points out, as far as the oil companies providing the oil go, good luck finding one that meets your high ethical standards — or even minimally decent ones. Every oil company you can name is in roughly the same moral category. So boycotting BP just means jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Second, there’s the fact that a boycott of BP gas stations won’t actually hurt the organization you’re trying to hurt. In practice, “boycotting BP” means boycotting BP-branded retail outlets. And as an editorial in the LA Times pointed out, “BP stations are independently owned, so a boycott hurts individual retailers more than London-based BP.” So, sure, boycott BP stations — that is, if your goal is to hurt a bunch of small businesses already operating on razor-thin profit margins. Put a few minimum-wage gas jockeys and cashiers out of work. The difference simply will not be felt at BP’s head office. (The same naturally goes for vandalism of BP stations, which is both unethical and criminal.)

Finally, there’s the question of tokenism. Buying gas for your car is far from the only way many of us indirectly buy from BP on a regular basis. As “DanH” points out in the Comments section of this blog entry, (see comment at June 3rd, 2010 2:52 pm) BP also makes home-heating fuel, airline fuel, ingredients for plastics, and the natural gas from which much electricity is generated. Oh, and solar panels — BP makes those, too. If you want to make this boycott real (which you shouldn’t) you’ve got to boycott those things, too.

Can consumers take action? Sure they can, by doing things — long-term things — to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels. They can also write their elected representatives to encourage tougher regulation of risky practices like deep-water drilling. And so on. I know, I know: in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “But I’m mad now! Well, then direct the righteous indignation you’re feeling now toward change that will make the world better for the future.

It’s fine to be angry about this disastrous oil-spill. Being angry is entirely appropriate. And it’s good to want to do something. But do the right thing, not the first thing that comes to mind.

(Tip of the hat to AP.)

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