Archive for the ‘international’ Category

Bribery at Wal-Mart de Mexico

Just when things seemed to be going so well at Wal-Mart!

Six years ago, just after I started blogging, I made a happy prediction about Wal-Mart. The company was subject to a truly enormous amount of bad press at the time, accused of everything from environmental infractions to falsifying employee time-cards. Nonetheless, I predicted that “within 5 years, Wal-Mart will be at the top of at least some business ethics / corporate social responsibility / corporate citizenship rankings.” I don’t think it was a particularly brave prediction: Wal-Mart has the money, and the organizational efficiency, to do just about anything it turns its mind to. And most of the bad things the company was being accused of weren’t central to its business model, so there didn’t seem to be any major barriers to the company turning over a new leaf in response to massive public pressure.

And my prediction turned out to be roughly right. While certainly not free of criticism, Wal-Mart has turned into an icon of environmental sustainability, and has indeed won a number of ethics-related awards. The bad press had dropped to virtually zero.

And then this.

If you haven’t yet read the stunning exposé on bribery at Wal-Mart de Mexico, you should. The short version: Wal-Mart de Mexico was apparently involved in an organized campaign to use bribery as an aid to its ambitious plans for expansion. When insiders notified Wal-Mart head office in Bentonville, Ark., of what was going on — the corruption, the devil-may-care attitude to law-breaking, the risk to corporate reputation — the big fish there basically swept the problem under the rug.

It’s a damning story, one that has vast implications all the way to the very top of the company’s world-wide operations. All kinds of questions arise. Where was the Board? What does this say about ‘tone at the top’? What role was played by international differences in law and custom? What damage will this do to Wal-Mart’s attempt to rehabilitate its reputation? What does this scandal say about the management skills of top executives at Wal-Mart de Mexico? Should heads roll? Or, more likely, whose heads should roll? To what extent does this pull the rug out from under the company’s sustainability and CSR efforts? I’ll explore a few of those questions here in the coming days.

World Standards Day: Celebrate or Mourn?

Today happens to be World Standards Day, a day that honours the work of the thousands of experts involved in setting the huge range of voluntary international standards that regulate production and trade in a globalized economy. Depending on your view of globalization, it’s a day either to be celebrated or mourned.

The standards in question include various standards established by groups like the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), and the International Accounting Standards Board (IASB).

I’m currently reading a very good book on just this topic, namely The New Global Rulers: The Privatization of Regulation in the World Economy, by Tim Büthe and Walter Mattli. The book examines the wide and growing range of international, private (i.e., non-governmental) standards being set by groups like the IEC, ISO, and IASB. As Büthe and Mattli point out, such standards are a double-edged sword.

On one hand, they facilitate the international flow of goods and services, making it easier for companies to ship products overseas or set up branch offices in foreign countries without learning entirely new, idiosyncratic local standards. And (being established by international groups of experts) they do this without the direct participation of governments that may not have the financial or technical capacity to set such standards. On the other hand private, international standards don’t bring benefits equally to all: not all companies are equally-well equipped to switch from older national standards to newer international ones, and some countries’ internal regulatory regimes make the switch even harder. And regardless, as Büthe and Mattli point out, adopting new standards always brings costs, including things like the costs of training, the cost of redesigning products, and even paying licensing fees for proprietary technologies.

It seems appropriate, at this juncture — while the Occupy Wall Street movement is a) lamenting the nature of government-industry interaction, and b) deciding whether it is or is not part of the anti-globalization movement — to give some serious and well-informed thought to the desirability of regulatory regimes that are both non-governmental and international.

A High-Tech Replacement for Sweatshop Labour! Um…yay?

When new technology puts sweatshop labourers out of work, is that a good thing or a bad thing? It’s not an entirely hypothetical question.

Here’s the story, from Fast Company: Nike’s New Thermo-Molded Sneakers Are Like Sculptures For Your Feet

The classic Air Force 1, Dunk, and Air Max 90 Nike shoes get the Vac Tech treatment–a thermo-molding technique that produces one-piece, stitch-free sneakers.

As a centerpiece for the holiday season, Nike Sportswear has released three of its most venerable brands–the Air Force 1, Dunk, and Air Max 90–constructed using a thermo-molding technique, a kind of vacuum compression method that allows the shoe to be held together without any noticeable seams or stitching. The Nike Dunk VT, above, basically recreates the familiar silhouette of the original design as sculpture around your feet.

Now presumably — though details are sketchy — the lack of stitching will mean these babies will be cranked out by machines, rather than assembled by hand by underpaid people in underdeveloped nations. Critics who think there’s no such thing as a good sweatshop should rejoice. But will sweatshop workers be so happy?

I hasten to add that the word “sweatshop” in its most pejorative sense doesn’t really apply to Nike. Nike, once villainized for having its shoes made by poorly-paid workers working under appalling conditions, is now widely recognized as a garment-industry leader in terms of labour standards. But that’s not to say that a job in a factory that makes Nike shoes is peachy. It’s still a hard life, by western standards. So is it good, or bad, for such labourers if a machine is developed that makes their services redundant?

As I’ve pointed out before, the workers vs machines conflict is, in the grand scheme of things, a false one. Machines can make workers more efficient (and hence valuable), can save humans from dangerous tasks, and can improve net social productivity in a way that stands to benefit literally everyone, in the long run.

But such generalizations don’t obviate the fact that there are some cases in which a new technology comes along and puts you out of work.

Unemployment is bad. Sweatshop jobs are bad. So do we celebrate or mourn when someone with a sweatshop job is put out of work? And is this a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils? Or the greater of two goods? And what does our answer to that question imply about the ethics of buying products made in the sweatshop jobs that remain?

Bullying in Pursuit of the Public Good

Should we celebrate when a powerful NGO convinces a powerful corporation to change its mind on something?

Here’s an example. Greenpeace recently… um, persuaded Mattel to stop using packaging sourced from companies that contribute to deforestation in Indonesia. (See the story by Angelina Chapin: Greenpeace wins battle with Mattel.) Mattel is a major toymaker, selling millions of products wrapped in cardboard, so the company’s decisions on where to get that cardboard stand to have a significant environmental impact. And Greenpeace managed to get the company to change its ways.

I suspect — but only suspect — that this is a good thing. I don’t know much about the facts of this particular case, but I think generally it’s good that there are well-intentioned nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) like Greenpeace working hard to get companies to think twice about the environmental impact of their business practices.

But it’s not always a good thing when NGOs badger and cajole a big company. Consider, for example, another case involving Greenpeace, namely the battle over the dismantling and disposal of the massive Brent Spar oil-storage buoy in the mid-90s. In that case, Greepeace launched a global campaign to pressure Shell, owner of the Brent Spar, to dispose of the floating oil-storage facility in a way that contradicted the company’s own environmental impact assessment. Greenpeace later changed its mind and apologized, but it was too late: Shell’s original disposal plan had already been scrapped, and the company’s share price damaged. In other words, Greenpeace had bullied Shell into doing the wrong thing.

Now most people are generally not very worried about major corporations, or large institutions of any kind, being bullied. And it’s easy enough to understand why. We’re usually more worried about corporations having too much power, rather than too little. But to uniformly celebrate victories of NGOs over corporations is to assume that NGOs are always right. And that’s a mistake. It’s also a mistake to assume that NGOs are in any important sense democratic, or automatically representative of the public interest.

Now this point must not be mistaken for a general critique of NGOs. There are many good NGOs out there, doing invaluable work. It’s just a reminder that the leaders of NGOs are not elected representatives, but rather self-appointed defenders of what they see as the public good. (I’ve written about how to assess NGO legitimacy before.)

Think of it this way. Companies sometimes do dumb things, and sometimes they do unethical things. There are lots of ways that can happen. Sometimes it’s due to flawed internal decision-making processes. Sometimes it’s a blind focus on profits or on expanding market share. Sometimes they do bad things in response to poorly-constructed regulations, or pressure from governments. And sometimes they’re bullied by other organizations, including NGOs.

And when a major corporation is bullied into making a bad decision, that bad decision can have enormous implications. So we should all watch with a careful eye when lobby groups, whether corporate or populist, attempt to use powerful non-democratic means to get their way.

Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?

A few days ago, I blogged about the notion of “ethical oil”. That’s the label one advocacy group is applying to oil from Canada’s oilsands, to distinguish it from oil from Saudi Arabia, a country with a less-than-admirable human rights record. That, of course, is a gross oversimplification.

But it’s still an interesting ethical issue. I said,

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?

It’s important to point out that there are two reasons this is a false dilemma. One is that consumers don’t actually get to choose: oil isn’t labeled by country of origin. The other reason is that neither of the nations named above is perfect, from a social and human rights point of view; nor is either country perfect from the point of view of environmental protection.

But it’s a philosophical thought-experiment worth conducting. So, let’s imagine: you’re driving your car, and your tank is near empty. You’re at an intersection with two gas stations. One is the Saudi brand and the other is the oilsands brand. Which one would you choose?

(Again, I do realize this is a gross oversimplification. It’s not a real choice. It’s a thought-experiment to get you to think about the relative value of the environment and human rights. Let’s all be thankful it’s not a choice we actually have to make.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Business Ethics Around the Globe: Zimbabwe and Russia

Flags of Zimbabwe and RussiaIf you have an interest in business ethics, it’s worth keeping an eye on the international scene for commentary about the role that ethics plays in developing economies. Here are a couple of recent examples.

First, by Manson Mnaba, for the Zimbabwean publication NewsDay: “Corporate Zimbabwe should embrace business ethics”
Two things are worth remarking. The first has to do with Mnaba’s description of the state of his country’s economy:

We are a nation emerging from the woods and doldrums. The past decade was particularly painful, strange and unique in every aspect. Conventional economics failed. Strait-jacket business principles failed to offer corporate direction.

Executives had to think outside the box through creativity and innovation. But Creativity and innovation devoid of human conscience is disastrous….

Note that this sounds a lot like how many Americans would describe the US economy. The difference, of course, is that Zimbabwe is actually poor, with a per person GDP that is one one hundredth that of the US.

The other thing worth noting is that Mnaba sees clearly — perhaps painfully clearly — the necessity of ethics in building an economy:

A business landscape where there are no ethics is a gangster’s paradise. Business ethics and corporate governance workshops would help us to sharpen our business intelligence quotient.

Next, to Russia. Russia isn’t a developing nation like Zimbabwe, but it is an economy in transition, still struggling to come to grips with the mechanisms and traditions necessary to sustain a free market, after generations of suffering under oppressive government and a command economy.

See this story, by Andrew E Kramer for the NYT: At 35,000 Feet, a Russian Image Problem. The story recounts the trouble that Russian airline manufacturers, in particular, have faced in trying to build jets for the Western market. Just one stumbling block:

…Russian television station NTV reported that 70 engineers at the plant making the Superjet had obtained fake engineering diplomas by bribing a local technical college; Sukhoi said those employees were not directly involved in assembling the planes….

Unfortunately, this isn’t all that surprising, for a country that scores near the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption perception index. Not surprising, but unfortunate. As I’ve pointed out before, trust — and hence ethics — is absolutely essential to commerce. And if Russia wants to expand its market, and hence its economy, it’s going to need to figure out more consistent business ethics.

Bribery, Legal Clarity, and Lame Excuses

Bribery is quite probably among the very oldest of unethical business practices, right up there with short-changing your customers and adulterating your products. Many modern economies have recognized that bribery has no place in a fair and efficient market, and have rightly taken action to prohibit what is widely acknowledged to be a pernicious practice. But not everyone is consistently appreciative of legislative efforts at curbing bribery. Take the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example. To see why the Chamber isn’t altogether happy about the U.S. government’s anti-bribery efforts, see this story from the Washington Post’s David S. Hilzenrath: “Quandary for U.S. companies: Whom to bribe?”

American companies doing business abroad have a problem: They don’t know whom to bribe.

Federal law prohibits the bribery of some people but not others. And the business world argues that the rules of the road are not clear. One guy’s bribe, as it turns out, is another guy’s cost of doing business….

A few points:

1) In principle, at least, bribery is an ethical no-brainer. There really is no pro-bribery point of view. Some may argue that it’s a necessary evil, something that companies are forced into by practical considerations in some countries. But that’s at least nominally different from thinking that bribery is ethically OK. Bribery involves inducing someone to violate a duty of loyal service, and it diverts resources that ought to go to more legitimate ends. And besides, bribery is a zero-sum game, which means that by definition the business community as a whole cannot win.

2) The Chamber’s basic plea, here, is an entirely reasonable one: the law does need to be clear. One fundamental element of the rule of law is the notion that citizens (and, derivatively, corporations) must be able to know what the law requires of them. Ignorance is no excuse, but uncertainty may be, at least when lack of certainty is the legislator’s fault. In other words, if the citizen is ignorant of the law, shame on the citizen. But if the law is opaque, shame on the state.

3) If the law really is unclear in dangerous ways, the evidence for that is remarkably thin. The Chamber cites just one anecdote, quite possibly apocryphal, about a company that nearly got prosecuted for a trivial non-offence (paying for a bureaucrat’s taxi ride). We only have Hilzenrath’s account to work with, here, but clearly if there’s a real issue here the Chamber needs to do a better job of making the case.

4) There are just two kinds of situations in which bribery seems truly necessary, and neither of them reflects well on the businesses involved. One is when you’re operating in a context where bribery truly is endemic, and you need to engage in bribery just to keep up. The number of places where that’s true is likely exaggerated. And besides, that need is a lousy excuse, frankly, and any self-respecting businessperson should think seriously about why they want to do business at all in such places. The other situation, of course, in which bribery seems like a true business necessity is one in which you simply aren’t good enough at what you do to compete effectively without doing things you know to be wrong.

Corruption and Ethics in the Russian Economy

Back in February I blogged about Russian Business Ethics, and about the way that watching a developing economy helps us see the significance of ethics in the functioning of any economy. If you want to understand the role of honesty, trust, and transparency in a market, you just need to look at a society experiencing a severe deficit of those things.

Here’s more in a similar vein, by Sergei L. Loiko, for the LA Times: Taking on Russian corruption

Moscow lawyer and blogger Alexei Navalny has been singlehandedly taking on Russia’s state-controlled energy giants, accusing them of large-scale embezzlement and corruption….

(See also this piece on fighting corruption in India: Wake-up call on anti-graft laws, from The Hindu Business Line. I also blogged last year about Business Ethics in China.)

It’s perhaps worth pointing out that there really is no ethical debate over corruption: there is no pro-corruption case to be made. No one is in favour of corruption, generally — though of course the corrupt are in favour of those instances of corruption that help them. There just is no systemic upside to bribery, embezzlement, and unremediated conflict of interest. But this fact sometimes go unnoticed when people lump bribery, for example, in with various other dubious practices that North American companies might engage in overseas. I recently had a senior academic suggest to me, in the context of a discussion of labour standards, that third-world sweatshops are just another money-grubbing technique that corporations use whenever they can get away with it — just like, you know, bribery. But there is an important distinction to be made there: sweatshops may sometimes play the role of unfortunate-but-necessary engine of economic growth. Bribery is just a drag on an economy. As seen by competing businesses, it’s a zero-sum game: either my bribe works or yours does. From a social point of view, it results in misallocation of resources: contracts go not to the most efficient producer, but to the producer that excels at the bribery game. This is another example of why it’s so important, in our normative evaluation of business practices, to maintain a mental distinction between things that are unfortunate, and things that are wrong.

Business Ethics and the Crisis in Japan

A couple of people have asked me recently about what business ethics issues arise in the wake of the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. As far as I’ve seen, the media hasn’t paid much attention to business ethics issues, or even on businesses at all, in their coverage of the disaster(s). But certainly there are a number of relevant issues within which appropriate business behaviour is going to be a significant question. Here are a few suggestion of areas in which the study of business ethics might be relevant:

1) The nuclear crisis. Although their role has not been front-and-centre (unlike, for example, the BP oil spill), at least a couple of companies have played a significant role in the crisis at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant. The reactors there were designed by General Electric, who surely face questions about the adequacy of that design and the relevant safeguards. And the plant is owned by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). TEPCO has been criticized for its handling of the disaster, including its notable lack of transparency. TEPCO also faces a difficult set of questions with regard to the ongoing risks to employees, including those who have vowed “to die if necessary” in order to protect the public from further risk. (For more information, see the wikipedia page about the Fukushima I nuclear accidents.)

2) Disaster relief. There is clearly an opportunity for many companies, both Japanese and foreign, to participate in the disaster relief effort. Whether they have an obligation to do so (i.e., a true corporate social responsibility) is an interesting question, as is the question of the terms on which they should participate. I’ve blogged before about the essential role that credit card companies play in disaster relief by facilitating donations; do credit card companies (and other companies) have an obligation to help out on a not-for-profit basis, or is it OK to make a profit in such situations?

3) Pricing. The topic of price-gouging often arises during and after a natural disaster, though I haven’t heard any reports of this in the wake of the earthquake in Japan. It’s a difficult ethical question. On one hand, companies that engage in true price gouging — preying on the vulnerable in a truly cynical and opportunistic way — are rightly singled out for moral criticism. On the other hand, prices naturally go up in the wake of disaster: picture the additional costs and risks that any company is going to face in trying to get their product into an area affected by an earthquake, a tsunami, and/or a nuclear meltdown.

4) Investment and trade. A major part of Japan’s recovery will depend on investment, both investment by foreign companies in Japan and investment by Japanese companies in the stricken areas of that country. This is clearly less of a concern than it would be in a less-economically developed country (like Haiti, for instance), but it’s still relevant. So the question arises: do companies have an obligation to help Japan rebuild by investing? If a company is, for example, deciding whether to build a new factory in either Japan or another country, should that decision be influenced by the desire to help Japan rebuild?

5) Consumer behaviour. Just as companies have to decide whether to invest in disaster-stricken nations or regions, so do consumers. Do you, as an individual, have any obligation to “buy Japanese,” in order to help rebuild the Japanese economy? Does it matter that Japan is a modern industrialized nation, as opposed to a developing one?

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