Earlier this month, a British-based research firm called the Fraser Consultancy released a report on corporate ethics, naming McDonald’s as the world’s most
unethical company in the eyes of the British public. Others named among the list of infamous corporate miscreants included Nike, Adidas, Coca-Cola, American Express and BP.
There was nary a surprise in the bunch.
Adidas and Nike make the list of evildoers because they manufacture shoes and clothes for North American and European hipsters in Third World factories where labour standards are lax, working conditions are dismal, and children are sometimes pressed into a miserable life on the sweatshop floor. This makes hipsters, who fill out surveys on corporate ethics, feel guilty every time they pull on their trainers to play ultimate Frisbee.
BP makes the list because it’s a big oil company. And everybody knows oil companies rape the earth and destroy the atmosphere to feed the West’s unquenchable thirst for energy. That makes yuppies feel guilty whenever they pump another $80 into the tanks of their mammoth SUVs.
McDonald’s is a charter member of the Cabal of Business Villainy™ because it makes unhealthy food and sells it in vast quantities. They make it so darn tasty, mere mortals are powerless to resist, and that makes them feel guilty every time they step on a scale. The guy in Super Size Me ate that junk three meals a day for a month and nearly died (or something) and that just can’t be right. They might as well sell bags of broken glass to toddlers.
Karen Fraser, the brains behind the poll, presented the results as a shrill wake-up call to major corporations. “At the moment, a large proportion of consumers feel conflicted; they have ethical concerns about certain companies, but still buy their products,” she reasoned. “If alternatives that are seen as more ethical become available, though, many of these companies will be vulnerable.”
It’s a familiar message, always delivered with the same stark urgency: the suits had better clean up their act or prepare to reap the whirlwind. The public’s distrust of major corporations has become so ingrained in modern culture that few even stop to question it anymore. And that’s just the problem: when you do stop to question them, surveys like this one, and the dozens of others just like it that come out every month, immediately begin to lose their meaning.
A person who is truly concerned about corporate ethics and the state of the world might wonder, for example, how it is that a listing of unethical corporations doesn’t feature a single mining company, or defence contractor, or tobacco merchant? And what of the companies who were singled out? How did they come to embody everything that’s wrong with global commerce?
Forget selling arms. Apparently, peddling burgers is the world’s most unethical pursuit.
BP is considered morally bankrupt, despite the fact that it is among the world leaders in development of alternative energy technology. In 2002, BP changed its branding from British Petroleum to Beyond Petroleum, and was one of the first major energy companies to admit the threat posed by global warming, and pledge to fight it.
Labour advocates widely acknowledge Nike as one of the best companies in North America for ensuring that standards are met at its Asian suppliers. Last year, it released a list of more than 7,000 suppliers for watchdog groups to scrutinize. It’s also one of the biggest donors to Third World charities, and in a recent ethics audit by Jantzi Research, the only apparel company that scored higher was Adidas.
McDonald’s has been a favourite target of anti-corporate campaigners for ages. But after many years of bad publicity—on everything from animal cruelty to environmental degradation and wasteful packaging—the company has introduced dozens of reforms to its supplier agreements and menu. In the same Jantzi audit, McDonald’s scored second only to Starbucks in a ranking of the most socially responsible food companies.
These are hardly isolated examples. Practically every major company now has a code
of conduct and entire departments dedicated to enforcing ethical standards on everything from environmental policy to philanthropy. They’re hardly perfect, but rather than building on successes, activists trot out the same old charges again and again, and feed the endless cycle of cynicism and distrust.
What started as a well-meaning movement, aimed at getting business to promote the greater good, has morphed into an industry unto itself: it’s the discontent industry, and it’s driven by image consultants and professional lobbyists, none of whom can present a coherent vision of what it means to be ethical. Instead, the public is fed a constant diet of anti-corporate polemics like The Corporation, No Logo and Super Size Me, all painting business as a hostile force, warping society into a bleak dystopia driven by endless greed. These self-appointed reformers have
been phenomenally successful at raising concern, but have failed utterly to increase understanding. Their screeds sell movie tickets, and they keep a select group of anticapitalist firebrands in high demand on the university speaking circuit, but their shtick is all heat, no light, and it’s getting old.
The result is a world in which arms manufacturers do brisk business with regressive dictators while tech companies eagerly assist autocrats in squelching democratic rights, and yet an entire generation of supposedly intelligent people seriously believe the world’s most unethical corporation sells hamburgers.
Getting the corporations to change was the easy part. Now it’s the reformers’ turn. M
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