Archive for the ‘natural’ Category

Herbal Remedy Scam

It’s a quality control problem at best, and outright fraud at worst.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Guelph used genetic analysis to study a range of commercial herbal remedies and found a shocking disparity between what was on the label and what’s actually in the bottle.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the researchers looked at 44 herbal products sold by 12 companies, using DNA ‘barcode testing’ to determine what plant species were in the bottle.

The result: some products contained other generally inert species of plants (for example wheat, to which some people are allergic, and rice, to which some people are allergic), without those ingredients being listed on the label. Other products were adulterated with potentially toxic plants like St. John’s wort or senna. Others simply contained none of the active ingredient they were supposed to contain. And yet these products are commercially available at a major pharmacy chain near you.

The study didn’t name names — the study was effectively about quality control within the industry, rather than about naming-and-shaming particular companies. But it’s a damning indictment for the industry quite generally. (Just two companies among the 12 in the study sold products that were just what they said they were.)

Of course, many readers will know that this is not the first reason we’ve had to doubt the integrity of the herbal remedy industry, or the ‘natural’ health product industry more generally. As others have written elsewhere (including pharmacists with the scientific and critical-thinking chops to know the difference), Canada’s regulations regarding natural health products leave much to be desired.

But it’s nothing to laugh about. Unlike homeopathic remedies, which (unless adulterated) generally contain no active ingredients at all, herbal remedies can have actual effects, though those effects may not live up to the claims implied by their labels. Herbal remedies, while under-regulated, can at least have real biological effects. That’s a source of pride for makers of herbals, situated as they are within an alternative-medicine industry that is rife with outright fraud and delusion.

But it also means that the honest bottlers of herbal remedies should be at the front of the line, lobbying government hard for stricter regulations. Perhaps even more crucially they should be doing their best to convince the major chains that there’s a difference between them and the companies whose products failed the Guelph study so miserably. In the end, it’s as much an ethical matter as a matter of self-interest. The public deserves to be better served, and who better than those within the industry itself to make sure that it happens?

Sustainability is Unsustainable

I was tempted to call this blog entry “Sustainability is Stupid,” but I changed my mind because that’s needlessly inflammatory. And really, the problem isn’t that the concept itself is stupid, though certainly I’ve seen some stupid uses of the term. But the real problem is that it’s too broad for some purposes, too narrow for others, and just can’t bear the weight that many people want to put on it. The current focus on sustainability as summing up everything we want to know about doing the right thing in business is, for lack of a better word, unsustainable.

Anyway, I am tired of sustainability. And not just because, as Ad Age recently declared, it’s one of the most jargon-y words of the year. Which it is. But the problems go beyond that.

Here are just a few of the problems with sustainability:

1) Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, not everything unsustainable is bad. Oil is unsustainable, technically speaking. It will eventually get scarce, and eventually run out, for all intents and purposes. But it’s also a pretty nifty product. It works. It’s cheap. And it’s not going away soon. So producing it isn’t evil, and using it isn’t evil, even if (yes, yes) it would be better if we used less. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of oil. It would be great if cars could run on something more plentiful and less polluting, like sunshine or water or wind. But in the meantime, oil is an absolutely essential commodity. Unsustainable, but quite useful.

2) There are ways for things to be bad other than being unsustainable. Cigarettes are a stupid, bad product. They’re addictive. They kill people. But are they sustainable? You bet. The tobacco industry has been going strong for a few hundred years now. If that’s not sustainability, I don’t know what is. To say that the tobacco industry isn’t sustainable is like saying the dinosaur way of life wasn’t sustainable because dinosaurs only ruled the earth for, like, a mere 150 million years. So, it’s a highly sustainable industry, but a bad one.

3) There’s no such thing as “sustainable” fish or “sustainable” forests or “sustainable” widgets, if by “sustainable” you mean as opposed to the other, “totally unsustainable” kind of fish or forests or widgets. It’s not a binary concept, but it gets sold as one. A fishery (or a forest or whatever) is either more or less sustainable. So to label something “sustainable” is almost always greenwash. Feels nice, but meaningless.

4) We’re still wayyyy unclear on what the word “sustainable” means. And I’m not talking about fine academic distinctions, here. I’m talking big picture. As in, what is the topic of discussion? For some people, for example, “sustainability” is clearly an environmental concept. As in, can we sustain producing X at the current rate without running out of X or out of the raw materials we need to make X? Or can we continue producing Y like this, given the obvious and unacceptable environmental damage it does? For others, though — well, for others, “sustainability” is about something much broader: something economic, environmental, and social. This fundamental distinction reduces dramatically the chances of having a meaningful conversation about this topic.

5) Many broad uses of the term “sustainable” are based on highly questionable empirical hypotheses. For example, some people seem to think that “sustainable” isn’t just an environmental notion because, after all, how can your business be sustainable if you don’t treat your workers well? And how can you sustain your place in the market if you don’t produce a high-quality product? Etc., etc. But of course, there are lots of examples of companies treating employees and customers and communities badly, and doing so quite successfully, over time-scales that make any claim that such practices are “unsustainable” manifestly silly. (See #2 above re the tobacco industry for an example.)

6) We have very, very little what is actually sustainable, environmentally or otherwise. Sure, there are clear cases. But for plenty of cases, the correct response to a claim of sustainability is simply “How do you know?” We know a fair bit, I think, about what kinds of practices tend to be more, rather than less, environmentally sustainable. But given the complexities of ecosystems, and the complexities of production processes and business supply chains, tracing all the implications of a particular product or process in order to declare it “sustainable” is very, very challenging. I conjecture that there are far, far more claims of “sustainability” than there are instances where the speaker knows what he or she is talking about.

7) Sometimes, it’s right to do the unsustainable thing. For example, would you kill the last breeding pair of an endangered species (say, bluefin tuna, before long) to feed a starving village, if that was your only way of doing so? I would. Sure, there’s room for disagreement, but I think I could provide a pretty good argument that in such a case, the exigencies of the immediate situation would be more weighty, morally, than the long-term consequences. Now, hopefully such terrible choices are few. But the point is simply to illustrate that sustainability is not some sort of over-arching value, some kind of trump card that always wins the hand.

8 ) The biggest, baddest problem with sustainability is that, like “CSR” and “accountability” and other hip bits of jargon, it’s a little wee box that people are trying to stuff full of every feel-good idea they ever hoped to apply to the world of business. So let’s get this straight: there are lots and lots of ways in which business can act rightly, or wrongly. And not all of them can be expressed in terms of the single notion of “sustainability.”

Now, look. Of course I don’t have anything against sustainability per se. I like the idea of running fisheries in a way that is more, rather than less, sustainable. I like the idea of sustainable agriculture (i.e., agriculture that does less, rather than more, long-term damage to the environment and uses up fewer, rather than more, natural resources). But let’s not pretend that sustainability is the only thing that matters, or that it’s the only word we need in our vocabulary when we want to talk about doing the right thing in business.

California’s Marijuana Industry: Ethical Issues

I’ve blogged about the insurance industry, the mining industry, the auto industry, even the donut industry. But the pot industry? Yes, it’s time.

From the Sacramento Bee: Growth of California’s Pot Industry is Good News for Unions

As Californians prepare to vote on a November ballot initiative that would expand legalization to recreational pot use, labor groups see the potential for perhaps tens of thousands of unionized jobs.

United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 5, which has 32,000 members in California working in trades including the grocery and food processing industries, began organizing marijuana “bud tenders,” greenhouse workers, packagers and laboratory technicians last spring….

So, here a budding industry, built around a controversial product that is illegal in most jurisdictions. There’s plenty of grass-root support for broader legalization (both for medicinal and recreational use). But there may be enough opposition to blunt the enthusiasm of law-makers about sudden moves. The support of politically-powerful unions is another ethically-significant factor — as is the potential capture of this new industry by unions.

This is such a rich and interesting story that there’s too much in it for me to try to hash it out by myself without resorting to quick, potted answers. So here are a handful of questions to seed the discussion. I’ll let you weed the good from the bad.

  • Ryan Grim reports that “The teachers union, citing the revenue that could be raised for the state, is also backing the initiative.” Is that sufficient reason? You don’t have to be an anti-pot puritan to worry about anything that might (inadvertently) encourage use of pot by school-age kids.
  • What business ethics issues are faced by producers and sellers of pot in the illegitimate parts of the drug industry? What new issues will the newly-legitimized industry face?
  • What CSR-type responsibilities does the (expanding) legal marijuana industry have?
  • Why are California Beer & Beverage Distributors lobbying against the proposed change? (See useful discussion over at Marginal Revolution).
  • What sorts of regulations should the industry seek? What motives will be foremost in industry’s mind in his regard — protecting revenues? protecting its image? protecting consumers?
  • Will the other drug industry — the pharmaceutical industry — move into this line of business? Why or why not?
  • Is the unionization of this industry generally a good or bad thing? Unionization improves the lot of workers, but also tends to raise prices. Since unionization itself is controversial, let’s ask it this way: is the case for unionization stronger or weaker, with regards to the marijuana industry?

I’ll open the floor for discussion.

Interview: Andrew Potter and The Authenticity Hoax

My pal Andrew Potter is a public affairs columnist with Maclean’s magazine (Canada’s premier newsweekly) and a features editor with Canadian Business magazine. He also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy.

Andrew’s new book, The Authenticity Hoax, is excellent. I interviewed Andrew recently, about the implications the issues discussed in his book have for a range of topics in Business Ethics.

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Chris MacDonald: Your new book, The Authenticity Hoax, is about the way our pursuit of authenticity is in many ways the pursuit of a mirage, and you argue that the pursuit of it is ultimately not just futile, but destructive. You say that one element of that — or is it a result? — is a lack of faith in the market. Presumably that plays out, in part, in a perception that business quite generally is unethical, on some level. Is that one of the deleterious effects of the pursuit of authenticity?

Andrew Potter: According to the theory I offer in the book, the quest for the authentic is largely a reaction to four aspects of the modern world: secularism, liberalism, technology, and the market economy. And I think you’re right, that hostility towards the market is probably the most significant of these. Why is that? That’s a whole other book! Though I think something like the following is at work:

First, markets are inherently alienating, to the extent to which they replace more gregarious and social forms of interaction and mutual benefit (e.g. sharing or gift economies, barter, and so on) with a very impersonal form of exchange. The second point is that the market economy is profit driven. This bothers people for a number of reasons, the most salient of which is that it seems to place greed at the forefront of human relations. Additionally, the quest for “profit” is seen as fundamentally amoral, which is why — as you point out — the mere fact of running a business or working in the private sector is considered unethical. Finally, you can add all the concerns about sustainability and the environment that the market is believed to exacerbate.

The upshot is that we have a deep cultural aversion to buying things on the open market. We think we live in a consumer society, but we don’t. We live in an anti-consumer society, which is why we feel the need to “launder” our consumption through a moral filter. That, I think, is why so much authenticity-seeking takes the form of green- or socially conscious consumerism.

CM: Claims to authenticity are a standard marketing gimmick at this point. In The Authenticity Hoax, you argue that authenticity isn’t the same as truth. Authenticity has more to do with being true to some essence, some deeper self. It strikes me that that makes for some very slippery advertising, including lots of claims that can’t be backed up, but can’t be disproven either. Is authenticity the ultimate marketing gimmick that way?

AP: Absolutely. What advertising and politics have in common is that they are both “bullshit” in the philosophical sense of term (made popular by Harry Frankfurt). What characterizes bullshit is that it isn’t “false”, it is that it isn’t even in the truth-telling game. That is why I think Stephen Colbert was dead on when he coined the term “truthiness” to refer to political discourse — he essentially means that it is bullshit.

What is interesting is that authenticity has the same structure as bullshit, in the following way: from Rousseau to Oprah, the mark of the authentic is not that it reflects from objective truth in the world or fact of the matter. Rather, the authentic is that which is true to how I feel at a given moment, or how things seem to me. As long as the story I tell rings true, that’s authentic.

And that fits in well with advertising, since advertising is all about telling a story. Everyone knows that most advertising is bullshit — for example, that drinking Gatorade won’t make you play like Jordan, or that buying a fancy car won’t make you suddenly appealing to hot women. But what a good brand does is deliver a consistent set of values, a promise or story of some sort, which fits with the idealized narrative of our lives, the story that seems true to us. That is why branding is the quintessential art form in the age of authenticity. Bullshit in, authenticity out!

CM: There’s an irony, of course, in the fact that so many companies are making claims to authenticity in their advertising and PR, since for most people the very term “PR” implies a kind of spin that is the exact opposite of authenticity. But that apparent irony echoes a theme from your previous book, The Rebel Sell (a.k.a. Nation of Rebels), doesn’t it? In that book, you (and co-author Joe Heath) argued that all supposedly counter-cultural movements and themes — things like skateboarding, hip-hop, environmentalism, and now add authenticity — are bound to be co-opted by marketers as soon as those ideas have gathered enough cultural salience. Is that part of what dooms the individual consumer’s pursuit of authenticity?

AP: Yes, that’s exactly right. Chapter four of my book (“Conspicuous Authenticity”) is a deliberate attempt to push the argument from the Rebel Sell ahead a bit, to treat “authenticity” as the successor value (and status good) to “cool”.

We have to be a bit careful though about using the term “co-optation”, because it isn’t clear who is co-opting whom. Both cool-hunting and authenticity-seeking are driven not by marketers but by consumer demand, in particular by the desire for status or distinction. And in both cases, the very act of marketing something as “cool” or as “authentic” undermines its credibility. Authenticity is like charisma — if you have to say you have it, you don’t.

That doesn’t mean marketers can’t exploit the public’s desire for the authentic, but it does mean they have to be careful about the pitch they employ; it can’t be too self-conscious. We all know that “authentic Chinese food” just means chicken balls and chow mein, which is why I actually think that things that are explicitly marketed as “authentic” are mostly harmless. It’s when you when you come across words like “sustainable”, or “organic,” or “local” or “artisanal”, you know you’re in the realm of the truly status-conscious authentic.

CM: I’ve got a special interest in ‘greenwashing.’ It occurs to me now that accusations of greenwashing have something to do with authenticity. When a company engages in greenwashing, they’re typically not lying — they’re not claiming to have done something they haven’t done. They’re telling the truth about something ‘green’ they’ve done, but they’re using that truth to hide some larger truth about dismal environmental performance. When companies greenwash, they’re using the truth to cover up their authentic selves, if you will. Do you think the public is particularly disposed to punish what we might think of as ‘crimes against authenticity?’

AP: I’m not sure. It is certainly true that in extreme cases of corporate bad faith the public reacts badly. The case of BP is a good example; as many people have pointed out, its “Beyond Petroleum” mantra is a very tarnished brand right now, and it is doubtful they’ll be able to renew its polish.

But at the same time, I don’t see any great evidence that the public as a whole is disposed to punish companies for greenwashing. Actually, I think the exact opposite is the case: I think the public is very much disposed towards buying into the weakest of greenwash campaigns. The reason, I think, goes back to the point I made earlier about most of us being fairly ashamed of living in a consumer society. Yet at the same time we like buying stuff, especially stuff that makes us feel good about ourselves and morally virtuous. Even the most half-witted greenwashing campaign is often enough for consumers to give themselves “permission” to buy something they really want.

CM: Let’s talk about a couple of product categories for which claims to authenticity are frequently made.

First, food. You argue that much of the current fascination with organic food, locally-grown food, etc., is best understood as the result of status-seeking. So the idea is basically that food elites start out looking down on everyone who doesn’t eat organic. But then as soon as organic becomes relatively wide-spread, suddenly eating organic doesn’t make you special, and so the food elite has to switch to eating local, or eating raw, or whatever else to separate themselves from the masses. And I find that analysis pretty compelling, myself. But a lot of devotees of organic and local foods are going to reject that analysis, and object that they, at least, are eating organic or local or whatever for the right reasons, not for the kind of status-seeking reasons you suggest. And surely some of them are sincere and are introspecting accurately. Does your analysis allow for that possibility?

AP: Sure. The key point is that these aren’t exclusive motivations. In fact, they can often work in lockstep: You feel virtuous eating organic, but you also want to feel more virtuous than your neighbour (moral one-upmanship is still one-upmanship, after all). And so you try to out-do her by switching to a local diet. And when she matches you and goes local too, you ratchet up the stakes by moving more of your consumption to artisanal goods (e.g. small-batch olive oil, handmade axes, self-butchered swine, and so-on).

And this would be a good thing if there were any evidence that these moves actually had the social and environmental benefits that their proponents claim for them. But unfortunately, the evidence is – at best – mixed; the more likely truth is that the one-upmanship angle has completely crowded out the moral calculations.

The more general point is that we need to stop assuming that something that gives us pleasure, or feeds our spiritual needs, will also be morally praiseworthy and environmentally beneficial. That assumption is one of the most tenacious aspects of the authenticity hoax, and it is one that we have no reason to make. There are good and bad practices at the local level, and artisanal consumption has its costs and benefits. Same thing for conventional food production — there are good things and bad things about it. It would be nice if the categories of good versus bad mapped cleanly on to the categories of local versus industrial, but they simply don’t. The belief that they do is nothing more than wishful thinking.

CM: What about alternative therapies? Much of the draw of those products — and at least some of their marketing — seems to revolve around authenticity. People who are attracted to alternative products seem to want to reject modern medicine, which they find alienating, in favour of what they perceive as something more authentic. Now most critics of alternative therapies such as homeopathy primarily object that there just isn’t good evidence that those therapies actually work. But your own analysis provides a further kind of criticism, rooted in the way that those who seek ‘authenticity’ via alternative medicine are engaged in what is more generally an unhealthy rejection of modernity. Is that right?

AP: There is a lot to dislike about modernity, and my argument is not that we should just suck it all up and live with it. My point is rather that modernity is about tradeoffs, and that we need to accept that for the most part, the tradeoffs have been worth making. Yes, some things of value have been lost, but on the whole I think it’s been worth it.

But if there is one part of the pre-modern world that is well lost, it’s the absence of evidence-based medicine. Yet for some bizarre reason, the longer we live and the healthier we get, the more people become convinced that we are poisoning ourselves, and that modern medicine is not the solution to our woes, but part of the cause.

The turn away from the benefits of modern medicine is one of the most disturbing and pernicious aspects of the authenticity hoax. My book has been interpreted by many as an attack on “the left”, but it perplexes me that things like naturopathy, anti-vaccination campaigns, and belief in the health benefits of raw milk are considered “left wing” or “progressive” ideals. As far as I’m concerned, this is part of a highly reactionary political agenda that rejects many of the most unimpeachable benefits of the modern world. We know that naturopathy and homeopathy is a fraud; we know that vaccines don’t cause autism and that public vaccination is the one of the greatest public health initiatives ever; we know that pasteurization has saved countless lives over the years.

But for reasons I cannot fathom, these and many other related benefits are ignored or shunned in favour of an “authentic” lifestyle that is an absolute and utter hoax.

Business Ethics & Alternative Medicine

This is a “meta” blog posting, bringing together the various blog entries of mine over the last couple of years on the single topic of business ethics and alternative medicine.

Alternative medicine (includes things like homeopathy, herbal supplements, Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, therapeutic touch, and so on) raises some interesting ethical issues. On one hand, most of it doesn’t work (or to be more accurate, most of it is unproven, and much of it is disproven), and we tend to think people should only sell products that work as advertised. But on the other hand, alternative medicine has many fans, and we generally think consumers ought to be able to choose for themselves what products are good for them.

Two other factors make alternative medicine interesting, from a business-ethics point of view.

One factor is that both the safety and efficacy of alternative therapies varies. Some therapies (e.g., homeopathy) are entirely implausible, whereas others such as some herbal therapies probably are effective. Not surprisingly, the pattern is reversed for safety: homeopathy is entirely safe (unless the consumer does something foolish like forgoing real medicine in favour of homeopathic remedies for the treatment of a serious illness), while on the other hand some herbal remedies pose significant dangers.

The second important factor is that alternative medicine is generally under-regulated. In Canada, for example, herbal supplements are categorized as “natural health products” and subject to only minimal oversight. The result is that neither consumers nor companies can assume that the law is providing significant oversight. In the absence of strong consumer-protection legislation, there’s a particularly strong obligation for companies to act ethically.

Here are my blog postings on this topic, in reverse-chronological order:

By the way, to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single scholarly paper that looks at the selling of alternative medicines from a business-ethics point of view. If you know of one, please let me know!

Unethical Herbal Supplements

Hey, what’s in that bottle of all-natural herbal supplements on your kitchen counter? Are you sure? What will those supplements do for you? Cure all that ails you? Something? Nothing? One way or the other, how do you know? The truth is, you probably shouldn’t feel so certain.

Here’s the story, from Katherine Harmon, in Scientific American: Herbal Supplement Sellers Dispense Dangerous Advice, False Claims

[The lack of evidence for their effectiveness] …hasn’t stopped many supplement sellers from making the false claims and even recommending potentially dangerous uses of the products to customers, according to a recent investigation conducted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). To obtain a sample of sales practices, the agency got staff members to call online retailers and to pose undercover as elderly customers at stores selling supplements.

Customers were not only told that supplements were capable of results for which there is no scientific evidence (such as preventing or curing Alzheimer’s disease); the advice and information also was potentially harmful (including a recommendation to replace prescription medicine with garlic)….

Some fans of herbal remedies are liable to complain that the relevant government agencies ought to be directing their efforts at the real culprits, namely Big Pharma. Why pick on people who package and sell “natural” herbal products when major pharmaceutical companies are, on a regular basis, found to have engaged in a whole range of dubious and sometimes deadly behaviours? But that’s roughly like a bank robber, upon his arrest, complaining that the cops ought to be out chasing white-collar criminals instead. The fact that embezzlement is a bad thing does nothing to diminish the badness of robbery. Both are wrong, and both are worthy of punishment.

Essentially, what we’re seeing here is history catching up with the makers of herbal supplements. Over the last decades, we’ve imposed increasingly tough rules on the pharmaceutical industry (though those rules still need to be tightened up in various ways). But herbal products are part of the “natural” products industry, and that industry is woefully under-regulated. Indeed, that industry is probably about as well-regulated today as the pharmaceutical industry was, say, 50 years ago.

(p.s. for information about which herbal supplements are and are not backed by good science, see Scott Gavura’s Science-Based Pharmacy blog.)

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