Archive for the ‘brands’ 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.

Loblaw Compensating Bangladesh Victims

Canadian grocery chain Loblaw has announced that it will compensate the families of victims of the factory collapse that happened in Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza this past May. The factory housed a number of garment factories, including some that made garments for the Canadian’ retailer’s “Joe Fresh” line of clothing.

Some will worry that this is a case of too little, too late. And certainly the “too late” part is correct. Compensation is always a distant second best when compared to avoiding deaths in the first place. Whether the compensation is “too little” or not is subject to debate. It’s not clear that Loblaw (or any company) bears direct responsibility for the behaviour of the companies it buys services from, though certainly the case is stronger where the buyer is a highly-capable multi-billion dollar company, and when the companies it buys from are smaller, less-capable companies operating in an under-regulated environment.

Either way, it’s hard not to admire the company for stepping up and assuming responsibility. And the money will surely be a godsend to the families of the victims. But the real benefit of the compensation scheme may well lie in its capacity to reassure Canadians (and other westerners) that the company cares, and that things are going to get better in Bangladesh, so that we can all keep buying goods made there. Because that’s what Bangladesh truly needs.

But on the other hand I continue to worry about Bangladeshi exceptionalism — that is, that all the attention being lavished on the garment industry in Bangladesh will mean little attention gets paid to parallel problems in places like Malaysia, Vietnam, Pakistan, China, and a number of African countries. There are surely factories in many, many developing countries that are ‘Rana Plazas’ just waiting to happen. It’s not clear just what is being done about those.

Finally, many will be asking what still needs to change? Two things come to mind. The first is that companies like Loblaw need to keep getting better at vetting the companies they do business with, in order to weed out the bad ones. This, of course, is much harder than it sounds. The second is that Canadians and other Westerner consumers need to change the way they think about the issue. They need to recognize that Bangladesh is not Canada, and doesn’t have the luxury of North American-style labour standards. They will surely get there, but it will be a long, slow climb.

Most important is that this tragic series of events has focused the world’s attention on an important set of issues. But the challenge lies in harnessing that attention and seeking out reasoned discussion, rather than knee-jerk reactions.

Ethics and Online Reputation Management

In a recent interview with, I talked about the effect the internet has had on reputation management, and the connection between that and ethics.

The risk, of course, in having an ethics professor like me talk about reputation management is that it’s all too easy to give the impression that the two topics are the same. In fact, I’m pretty sure there are people out there who assume they are the same thing.

And certainly there are those in the field of ethics who contribute to that way of thinking. Sometimes that takes the form of what is often referred to as “the business” case for ethics (or for CSR or for sustainability). “The business case” takes many forms, but all of them boil down to an assertion that acting ethically (or being socially responsible or being sustainable, whatever) is good for your business. The specific mechanisms mentioned are varied. Treating your workers well improves retention. Going green reduces energy costs. And, yes, that being ethical is good for that all-important corporation reputation.

The worry is that businesses exposed to such arguments will come to think of ethics from a purely instrumental point of view: we’ll act ethically only because, and only to the extent, that it’s good for profits. Thinking of ethics that way implies an incredibly low level of commitment. You won’t always in every situation be able to draw a straight line between this bit of ethical behaviour and that bit of profitability. And so the ethics of a company under the sway of “the business case,” it seems, would be liable to have its ethical behaviour ebb and flow on a pretty regular basis.

The key, though, isn’t to avoid talking about the business case for ethics. Because it is simply true that, on the whole, acting ethically is good for business. Sure, you can make a quick buck by being a cheat. But smart managers have known forever that the route to sustainable profits lies in paying your bills on time, treating your employees well, cleaning up your own messes, and dealing honestly with your customers. Having a reputation for doing those things is truly good for business.

Clearly, having a reputation for doing those things isn’t precisely the same thing as actually doing them. In theory, it’s possible to act badly but to keep the facts quiet. Or at least, that was the case once upon a time. Then along came consumer blogs and Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and so on; now, accusations of bad corporate behaviour has a way of getting out and spreading like wildfire. Today, certainly, it seems like the easiest way to get and keep a reputation for honesty and integrity is actually to behave with honesty and integrity. It’s always better to avoid fires than to have to put them out. That’s why the best reputation management method is to build a good reputation in the first place.

But of course, sometimes even an honest company, trying its best to treat people right, can hit a rough patch. Sometimes something goes wrong, and sometimes — in an era in which all of your customers have access to a 7 billion-person conversation called the Internet — that fact that something went wrong gets aired in a very public way. Hence the need for online reputation management, to control the damage. But even here, the key is to make your participation in those online conversations genuine, or if you prefer “authentic.” You need to be sincere about your commitment to doing the right thing, and to making things right when mistakes are made. This is the irony of the business case for ethics. The best way to reap the benefits of a reputation for being ethical is not to pay much attention to those benefits, but to focus on the importance of doing the right thing — for its own sake.

Top Retailers Sign New Bangladesh Safety Initiative

Workers in Bangladesh will be the beneficiaries of yet another massive effort to improve their lot. Will it work? And will it mean anything for workers in countries other than Bangladesh? It’s a welcome move, but it also raises questions.

According to a press release, an alliance of leading North American retailers has committed to a new plan, The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative, intended to “dramatically improving factory safety conditions in Bangladesh.” The coalition includes Walmart, Target, Canadian Tire, Gap, Hudson’s Bay Company, and a dozen other major retailers. That means, according to the press release, that the Initiative covers the “overwhelming majority of North American apparel imports.”

This new Initiative should not be confused with the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a labour-led agreement that was announced in May, less than a month after the collapsed the collapse of Bangladesh’s 8-story Rana Plaza collapse, a tragedy that eventually claimed 1,129 victims. Signatories to that Accord included Europe’s two biggest clothing retailers, as well as Tommy Hilfiger, H&M, and Canada’s Loblaw, but there were notable abstentions. Walmart, for instance, was criticized for declining to sign on.

The new Initiative “sets aggressive timelines and accountability for inspections, training and worker empowerment.” Of particular note: “Within one year, 100 percent of all factories that conduct work with an alliance member will be inspected,” and members of the alliance have committed to refusing to do business with any factory deemed unsafe. And, in a worthy commitment to transparency, the alliance will make semi-annual progress reports public.

There is, of course, plenty of room for skepticism. Some will see this new Initiative as a PR move, albeit a rather expensive one. Members of the alliance have already committed $42 million, though of course that number has to be put into context by comparing it to the vast profit the alliance members derive from doing business in Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi garment industry is a $19 billion-a-year industry. (Quick math: that means the size of the Alliance budget amounts to roughtly 0.2% of the size of the industry. That’s not necessarily the most relevant comparison, but it gives you a sense of scale.)

Another source of skepticism, for some, is that this is an entirely business-driven initiative, unlike the May Accord, which was driven by labour and which will be guided by a Board that includes representatives of both corporate and labour interests. The Board of the new Initiative is perhaps less clearly unbiased: the 9-member board will consist of “four retailers, four stakeholders who provide specific expertise, and an independent board chair.” Interestingly, however, the Initiative does include specific provisions not just to look after workers, in the paternalistic sense, but to empower them: it calls for members to support the election of Worker Participation Committees at all factories, along with the provision of anonymous worker hotlines to be administered by a third party.

I continue to wonder and worry that both the new The Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative and May’s Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh represent a kind of Bangladeshi exceptionalism. Why are major retailers joining together in now two big agreements to improve conditions in Bangladesh, but in Bangladesh alone? Admittedly, Bangladesh is important — as far as the garment industry goes, it is second only to China among countries exporting Western brands. But still: it worries me that a factory collapse that could have happened in an number of developing nations has apparently drawn attention only to the fate of garment workers in one, admittedly needy, nation.

Rejecting the Bangladesh Safety Accord

Image by rijans (Creative Commons)

Image by rijans (Creative Commons)

It’s easy to villainize a company like Walmart for being unwilling to sign an agreement seeking to improve safety for workers in Bangladesh. What’s harder is to assess the company’s actual motives, and its obligations.

Headlines recently blared that Walmart has refused to sign the new “Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh”, despite the fact that 24 other companies (including Europe’s two largest clothing retailers, as well as American brand Tommy Hilfiger and Canada’s Loblaw) had signed.

Other news sources avoided the Walmart-centric hysteria and pointed out that lots of retail chains have in fact opted not to sign. For its part, Walmart says says it plans to undertake its own plan to verify and improve conditions at its suppliers’ factories in Bangladesh. Supporters of the accord, however, are skeptical about the effectiveness of company’s proposed independent effort.

From the point of view of ethical responsibilities, could a well-intentioned company conscientiously decline to sign the pact?

It’s worth looking at a few reasons why a company might choose not to sign a pact designed to improve, and even save, lives. Walmart presumably believes that its own effort will be sufficient, and perhaps even superior. The company’s famous efficiency and notorious influence over suppliers lend some credibility to such a notion. Other companies have worried that signing the pact would bring new legal liabilities, which of course is precisely the point of a legally-binding document. (Gap, for instance, has said that it will sign only if language regarding arbitration is removed, a stance that effectively amounts to refusal.)

There may also be worries about governance: the accord provides for the appointment of a steering committee “with equal representation chosen by the trade union signatories and company signatories” — equal, but to be chaired by a seventh member selected by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Perhaps some worry that the ILO-appointed chair won’t really be neutral, giving unions an effective majority.

Other companies — including ones like Walmart, which is famous for its efficiency — may worry about the extra administrative burden implied by weaving this accord’s regulatory apparatus into its own systems of supply-chain oversight.

Another worry might be the fact that the accord applies only to Bangladesh, and makes that country the subject of a separate set of procedures. The accord also commits signatories to expenditures specifically on safety in Bangladesh, when from a particular company’s point of view Bangladesh might not be a priority. In the wake of the April factory collapse, it’s worth pointing out that there are other places in the world with unsafe factories and crummy working conditions. It’s not unreasonable for at least some companies to focus their efforts on places where conditions are equally bad, and that host even more of their suppliers.

None of this goes any distance toward excusing inaction. None of it condones apathy. The point is simply that while failure to sign a particular accord makes great headlines, we need to look carefully at reasons, as well as at a company’s full range of obligations, if we are to make sense of such a decision.

Joe Fresh: is Compensation for Bangladesh an Admission of Guilt?

Loblaw Companies Limited, the company that owns the Joe Fresh retail clothing line, has announced that it will pay compensation to the families of victims of last week’s factory collapse in Bangladesh. Details are sparse at this point, but it’s an interesting development.

The move will of course garner the company plenty of praise. Some of that praise will be offered only grudgingly, by those who will see it as the least that can be done by a money-hungry corporation in the habit of squeezing profits out of the labour of Bangladeshis with few other options. But still, there will be praise. For it is easy to see the good in a transfer of wealth from a multibillion dollar Western corporation to several hundred exceedingly poor families. Any plausible amount of compensation will be trivial to the company, but an enormous boon the those in Bangladesh who were affected.

But I for one still have questions, in particular questions about what is motivating the move. As I’ve said, the move will do a lot of good, but there are many different principles that might underlie any given action that does good. And we typically care not just about outcomes, but about principles too. Upon what principle is Loblaw compensating the victims in Bangladesh?

Cynics are already assuming that the move is pure PR, aimed at deflecting criticism (however unfair) and dissociating the Joe Fresh brand from the grimy reality of developing-country sweatshops. That’s one possibility.

It might also be that the company sees such payment as a form of charity. The building collapse last week resulted in horrible human suffering. Most big companies donate to charitable and humanitarian causes. And even if Loblaw doesn’t see itself as responsible for the collapse, it must see a connection, emotionally at least, and so the families of the dead are an especially apt target for the company’s charity.

But for me, the word “compensate” raises questions. That word can mean many things. But in contexts like this, it is perhaps most naturally read as referring to payments aimed at offsetting a loss, payments from someone who is either responsible for that loss or who at least for some reason owes such a payment. “Compensation” is not quite the same as “restitution,” of course. The latter word clearly implies culpability. But still, the word “compensation” seems to imply a level of regret, if not guilt. Is that what the company is implying? After all, Loblaw could have opted simply to say “We’re going to help those affected,” or even more neutrally, “We’re going to send money.” But “compensation” is the word the company itself is using. Is that really what they mean? And if so, why specifically do they think they owe compensation? What level of responsibility do they take — do they plan on taking — for the actions of subcontractors on the other side of the planet?

This is more than mere semantics; it’s about the principles underlying corporate behaviour. If, as seems inevitable, we are to regard corporations as entities capable of taking action, and of meriting praise or blame, then we need to be able to talk about what motivates them, and to ask them about the principles upon which they act. In a way, to seek a principled explanation in a situation like this is even more demanding than simply to ask that the company pay up. As I’ve already noted, the money in this case is a drop in the bucket. Giving voice to a set of values and principles upon which corporate behaviour is based is a lot harder than writing a cheque.

POM Wonderful and Hearts vs Brains

The makers of POM Wonderful want you to use your heart, not your brain.

At least, that’s the distinct impression we get from the company’s recent battle with the US Federal Trade Commission. Last week, an administrative law judge for the FTC found that at least some of POM’s ads made “false and misleading” claims about the health benefits of the trendy, branded pomegranate juice. And the company is fighting back with a series of ads that, by quoting the judge out of context, makes it look like he actually looked favourably upon their product.

The tagline for these ads: “FTC v. POM: You be the judge”.

So POM wants you to be the judge. On the surface, that sounds like they want you to think for yourself. And who could complain about that? But context matters. So when the company is pushing back against the FTC’s assertion (and the court’s finding) that the health claims made on behalf of its juice just don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, the implied message is that yes, you the consumer should decide, but you shouldn’t use your head in doing so. After all, if you used your head and thought it through rationally, you would want to look at the evidence. And, well, the evidence doesn’t look so good for POM. But the makers of POM, it seems, would rather you look inward instead of looking at the evidence. C’mon, you’ve tasted it. It’s delicious. It must be good for you. And you, dear customer, are smart enough to know that, right? Forget what the science says.

This kind of thing is arguably part of a larger social trend. See this recent essay by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, on the way politicians, in particular over the last decade, have found new ways to play fast-and-loose with the truth. Heath and Potter point out the new popularity of the trick of using stubborn repetition as means of bullying your way past awkward facts. A lie can be convincing, in particular when it feels right, when the claim being made fits with your world view or how you want the world to be. And who wouldn’t like to believe that a tasty serving of fruit juice could prevent heart disease or cancer?

The makers of POM are certainly not unique among advertisers wanting you to use your heart, rather than your brain. But they are unusually bold about it, going on the offensive and thumbing their noses at the people whose job it is to do the fact-checking. So consumers beware: when a company wants you not to take a hard look at the facts, it’s usually time to do just that.

McDonald’s and the Ethics of Olympic Sponsorship

McDonald’s has been taking some heat over its continuing sponsorship of the Olympics. The fast-food chain recently announced that it would remain a top sponsor of the Olympic games through 2020.

The main charge here seems to be some form of hypocrisy. Critics suppose that there’s some sort of contradiction involved in a sporting event being sponsored by a fast-food chain. But there is, of course, no contradiction at all — at least not for those of use who take both our sports and our junk food in moderation. True, a diet that includes frequent trips to McDonald’s (or Burger King or Wendy’s, etc. etc.) seems inconsistent with a lifestyle aimed at maximal athletic output. There’s a real conflict there. But few of us are aiming at elite sporting status, and relatively few of us (thankfully) make Big Macs a staple. Most of us enjoy both sport and junk food in moderation. For us, the occasional serving of greasy fries does absolutely no harm at all to our athletic aspirations. There’s no contradiction in loving, say, both a Quarter Pounder With Cheese and training for a Half Marathon. So there’s no inherent contradiction involved in McD’s sponsoring the Olympics.

And really, if anyone is to blame, it’s not McDonald’s but the International Olympic Committee, and/or whatever subcommittees or functionaries are assigned the task of signing sponsors. After all, it’s their supposed values, not the fast-food chain’s, that this sponsorship deal presumably violates.

But supposed value-conflicts aside: what about the effect of such the McDonalds/Olympics alliance on, for example, kids? Well, note to start that kids don’t watch the olympics much. As for the rest of us, well we need to come to grips with the fact that our economic system features certain warts. And one of those warts is that the freedom to buy-and-sell means the freedom to sell things the over-consumption of which is harmful. And the freedom to sell such things implies the freedom to advertise them. Is affiliation with McDonald’s jeopardizing the positive impact of the Olympics? So be it. Our system of free commerce is a system that brings with it enormous benefits, far more benefits than will ever be derived from one hypertrophied sporting event.

Banks, Image Problems, and the Ethics of Lobbying

Ethics in public relations can mean two different things. It can mean managing your firm’s reputation, since a reputation for ethical behaviour is of course a central part of the reputation that any company wants for itself. It can also mean ethics in the way you go about managing that reputation, since there are good and bad ways to do that. Sometimes the two go hand-in-hand.

Businessweek recently reported that Brian T. Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, has said he is “incensed” at public criticism of his bank, and has called upon 135 ‘market presidents’ (presidents of local business units) to lobby local officials and remind them of how much good the bank does for local communities. Call it reputation management, call it lobbying. Either way, it’s not at all clear that it is a good substitute for changing the practices that have been angering critics in the first place. It’s also not clear that a focus on ‘all the good we do’ is the right approach. Why not tackle the issues head-on?

Yesterday, at Canadian Business for Social Responsibility’s annual Forum, I got the chance to ask keynote speaker Stephen Lewis about the ethics of lobbying. (Lewis, in addition to being a former diplomat and a UN special envoy is also a former parliamentarian, so he seemed a good person to ask.) Lewis said that, in his experience — both as a parliamentarian and as someone who has lobbied hard on behalf of many causes — the best approach to lobbying is honesty. Put your agenda on the table, he said, and you’re likely to get a fair hearing.

That rings true, especially in an era in which just about everyone is cynical about corporate motives. Even people who believe fully in the crucial role that business plays in making the world a better place — and yes, that includes banks — are likely to respect you more if you admit that you’ve got an agenda, and that that agenda is not, and properly is not, direct pursuit of the public good.

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?

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