Jack Yan posted about backlash against Coca-Cola and other soda companies today, and raised some interesting points about brand strength. Tied into this story are some very interesting ethical issues that are worth exploring.
As Jack notes and cites in his post, several bans against cola products and production have surfaced as a result of pesticide level findings. Of note, in several areas of India, the drinks are banned in educational institutions government hospitals.
The obvious ethical question is whether or not it is appropriate for the cola companies to produce beverages with such high levels of pesticides. Theoretically, it is possible (and prior to the backlash and bans, probable) that the local governments did not prohibit such high levels of pesticides in the drinks, and the cola companies, accordingly, produced beverages in line with local regulations. More pesticides probably coincided with greater profits…just a guess.
But is it ethical to cut corners in such a manner, even in the absence of a regulation or law that eliminates the question of legality? Unfortunately, the frustrating answer is that it isn’t certain. For a decision or action to be deemed ethical or not, many criteria have to be evaluated. Moreover, the ethical framework you choose could vastly alter your conclusions. So, what do you do?
If you intend to make a serious effort to incorporate strong ethics and moral theory into the structure of your business, I would start by forming a solid understanding of the many intricacies of business ethics and moral theory. A great place to start is Ethics Updates, though a trip to your local library should also produce a nice stack of weekend reading.
Absent of a more academic and rigorous approach, I would like to believe that we are all capable of making sound ethical decisions by asking ourselves a few simple questions (…optimistic, but quite naive). The caveat, of course, is that you need to have a strong moral basis to begin with, to measure your situation against. Regardless, the following questions should give you a place to start when analyzing the ethics of a challenging situation:
- Is there anything illegal about the scenario? If I am not sure, am I certain that the situation is entirely legal?
- Will anyone experience physical, mental, or other distress as a result of the situation, either in the short term or the long term?
- Would this situation be considered legal and ethical in my own country or local area?
- Does the situation compromise any of my personal beliefs?
- Has anyone connected to the scenario raised doubts about its ethics?
The above list is very, very thin, and only intended to give you a simple starting point. As mentioned, ethical dilemmas can be complex and may involve a large number of criteria and viewpoints.Since much of this sounds so simplistic (what’s so incredible about asking a few common-sense questions) why do these kind of things end up as news stories? Why do we hear about sweat shops, toxic waste being dumped into rivers, stock option scandals, etc.? Are people not asking themselves these very simple questions? Are they ignoring the conclusions they come to? Are they forming the wrong conclusions? Is the ethical framework they are using completely out of date and irrational? Are they so motivated by money that they come to the right conclusions but delude themselves into thinking that their actions are okay regardless? What gives?
[Update, 8/12/06]: Wow. Be sure to read this update regarding Coca-Cola, pesticides, and India from Jack Yan. I find the political twist very interesting though the lack of action and transparency by Coca-Cola and Pepsi definitely take the cake.