Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Iraq, five years later

We don’t know how you feel, but it’s somewhat hard to even properly listen when news from Iraq are coming up. So numbed and used to bombs, casualties and barbarian acts have we become that it really takes a ‘jubilee’ to make us remember, that: yes, of course, there is still a war going on in Iraq!

So here we were last week, five years since the ‘liberation’ of Iraq. Ah, and there was another ‘newsworthy’ item: the 4,000th US casualty was reported – no scores on Iraqi civilians though, they don’t ‘count’…

Not only have the news been basically all the same for the last five years, but so have been the interpretations. Pretty much "Bush’s incompetence, Oil and Halliburton" is what it mainly boils down to. In our view, there is one exception though: Naomi Klein’s recent book ‘The Shock Doctrine’.

OK – lets get this out of the way straight upfront: Klein is an activist, writes with a certain angle and probably some of her theses might be closer to legend building than to solid interpretation. This aside, the book is a fascinating read for everybody attempting at understanding the contemporary role of business and politics in society.

Starting in the 1970s Klein provides an excellently researched overview over the link between introduction of liberal, free market economic policies and the use of ‘shock’ in the form of violence, terror and intimidation by governments or powerful elites to achieve this end. Examples range from Chile, Bolivia, Poland, China, Russia, Indonesia, South Africa up to - post 9/11 - the US and other Western democracies.

The book provides a stunning analysis of the driving agents, forces and ideas behind the spread of global capitalism. It is a gripping read to anyone interested in business ethics for at least three reasons:

  • Ever wondered why CSR, business ethics, corporate citizenship etc. has risen so sharply on corporate agendas recently? Klein provides a systematic account of how frameworks for economic activity have been changed towards less regulation and more discretion – and thus responsibility - of private actors (corporations that is).
  • So, academic research and ‘ideas’ are just for filling the shelves of the ‘ivory towers’? Klein’s book provides a different story: Milton Friedman’s love affair with dictators of the likes of Pinochet or Deng Xiao Ping or with CEOs-cum-politicians such as Cheney and Rumsfeld had a significant influence on how billions of lives are shaped today. As a young economics professor, Jeffrey Sachs’ ideas – according to Klein – had disastrous effects on countries like Bolivia or Poland. So the book makes a strong case that studying and applying academic research in fact is tremendously powerful.
  • Where are we heading? Klein shows that the systematic privatization of utilities, public transport, health care, correction facilities (i.e. prisons) and education in the last 20 years were just the beginning. The Iraq war is probably the first attempt by a government to fight a war where everything other than core strategic directions is privatized and run by for-profit corporations. Love it or hate it - corporations will face more and more claims for transparency, accountability and commitment to the public interest – all core topics for business ethics.

In short – looking for an inspiring read? Klein’s book won’t disappoint even if you don’t agree with everything.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Nike, China, and the Olympics

It looks like the 2008 Beijing Olympics are shaping up to be a major occasion for discussion of all kinds of social, ethical, and environmental issues. From human rights, to pollution, climate change, and a whole host of other issues, campaigners and activists are using the global pulling power of the Olympics to focus on some of the darker sides of the Chinese economic miracle. We've already had the Hollywood movie director Steven Spielberg resigning from his role in the games in protest against China's support for Sudan in the wake of the Darfur crisis. And, with corporations taking an ever greater role in global sporting events like these, we can expect the anti-corporate movement to get in full swing for a summer of olympian protests.

Some companies though are taking the lead in getting their story straight early. Nike is one of the forerunners here with the recent publication of a China supplement to its corporate responsibility report, 'Innovate for a Better World'. It makes for interesting reading.

To begin with, the report makes it clear that Nike and China's fortunes are inextricably linked. Not only are a third of all Nike shoe's produced in China, but China has also become the company's second biggest market. Mark Parker, the Nike CEO and President has this to say in his introduction to the report:

"For Nike the Beijing Olympics provide an opportunity to share China’s importance to our business. China produced 35 percent of Nike’s footwear in fiscal 2007 and is a substantial sourcing market for our apparel and equipment. This year we’re on course to achieve $1 billion in sales – making China our second largest market outside the U.S. China is key to our continued growth and success. Nike and China will succeed together."

Make no mistake, Nike needs China right now, probably more even than China needs Nike. So for Nike it is critical for the integrity of their hard won, newly minted reputation for corporate responsibility that the Olympics do not go seriously awry when it comes to ethical issues. And getting their defence lined up before the criticisms come flying in looks to be a good strategy at this stage. Nike isn't just sitting hoping that it doesn't get fired on, but is actually putting its head above the parapet and publishing data to show whats going right with their China operation. OK, so its less expansive about what's going wrong, but that's hardly much of a surprise. And taking the step to publish the report in the first place - and to make sure it is based on documented evidence - is interesting in itself as a strategy to try and diffuse the potential problems that might arise as the world starts focusing its attentions on China during 2008.

Nike has had to learn the hard way that defensiveness and secrecy in the face of ethical criticisms isn't always the best option, so we shall see if this new approach to transparency works out the way they're hoping. There is always the danger of course that by drawing attention to their operations in China, Nike just ends up as the main focus of attack - or even that it spurs their critics to dig even further to find some bad news. But, from where we are sitting now, it looks like a good way to start getting ready for a summer of considerable heat.

Like many other texts, our new CSR textbook includes a case on Nike's adventures in Asia, so it will be interesting to see how this next chapter turns out, and whether the Olympics comes to be regarded as a case study of Nike's increasing confidence in this arena, or an own-goal that teaches us all something new about the perils of conducting responsible business in China

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Ethics of Business Ethics Essay Writing

It’s this time of the year again – term is coming to an end, exams are coming up, assignments are due. Thousands of ‘Crane & Matten’ readers around the world (this blog alone has got hits from some 30 countries so far) are preparing to score well in business ethics. Funnily enough, this is a situation where ethics suddenly can turn from an abstract academic subject into a thorny practical issue. With many exams and essays due at the same time the temptation to use shortcuts is only too high.

Well, as ethics professors we really shouldn’t get into details on how to cut corners here. Our students mostly seem to be ahead of us on this anyway. Nevertheless, we were quite intrigued about one recent service offered to students by the web-based company! This ‘service’ offers students help with writing essays – from providing a reference list for a bargain £1.99 ($ 4.-) up to custom written essays starting at a reasonably priced £9.99 ($ 20.-)! And if you ever were frustrated that you put so much work into something which is just briefly read by one professor and then ends up on the shelf (at best) – essays4you offers to buy your work for use by future generations of students.

OK, we would be lying if we didn't feel a certain sense of guilty pride that some of their products specifically offer essays on cases featured in our business ethics textbook. But it left us wondering how much of a pedagogical success business ethics teaching really is when such a service is available to pass ethics exams?

But let’s not rush to conclusions: in the ‘acceptable use’ section of their site essays4you clearly states:

"The intended purpose of Our research papers is that they are used as models to assist in the preparation of Your own research papers. […] Papers For You or its affiliates will NEVER sell a model paper to ANY student giving us ANY reason to believe that (s)he will submit our work, either in whole or part, for academic credit at any institution under their own name. "

Now that’s a relief! So students pay money for having an essay custom written by one of their ‘experts’ and then just humbly use it as ‘model’. Sure.

We think this is a great example to ponder the boundaries of corporate responsibility for the way in which customers use the products sold to them. The internet, defence, and fast food industries have all gotten into trouble exactly on this front. The likelihood of some products being used in a harmful, or unethical way is just too high to not assign some responsibility to those who put them on the market in the first place. So we remain somewhat skeptical that essays4you customers - running late for an essay deadline, having missed some classes, ready to leave for the holiday etc. - don't give 'ANY reason to believe that (s)he will submit' the essay4you-product 'for academic credit at any institution under their own name'.

But maybe we are just too pessimistic. So – if you are desperate for some inspiration, some shining ‘models’ of the art of business ethics prose – we couldn’t be happier to having passed on this wonderful resource. Actually, we maybe should ask essays4you for commission for featuring their wonderful pedagogic service in our blog…

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

"Unjustly incarcerated": Conrad Black, ethics, and the media

So with Conrad Black spending his first day behind bars as federal prisoner 18330-424, the issue of the ethics of senior executives is once more back in the headlines. Well, OK, in this case, its more than just about ethics - clearly we have a case that is as much about breaking the law as it is getting entangled in ethical gray areas. For all the complexities of this case, fraud of $6 million is, well ... just plain illegal. But with Black himself continuing to claim to be the slighted one, making all kinds of accusations about the integrity of, among others, dissident shareholders, a special committee set up at Hollinger to investigate the case, the media, US prosecutors, and even the trial jury for "compromising" in reaching its verdict, ethics have never been far from the surface of this one.

Not that we are going to enter the fray arguing about who did what and who was to blame for the whole Hollinger fiasco. Clearly a whole lot of value got leached out of the company one way or another. Some of it through poor management, some bad luck, and, as the courts have made clear, some through fraud. Whichever way you look at it, the situation doesn't look good for anyone much.

For us though, especially being relatively new to Canada, one of the most interesting aspects of the case has been the media reaction to it here in the former press baron's country of birth. Black is certainly a larger than life character, and the media here in Canada, as in the UK and the US, eagerly covered every detail of the case, and especially reports of his supposedly lavish lifestyle. Now that Black's six and a half year sentence has started, his fall from grace is back in the news. Prominent among the broadsheets covering Blacks last moments of freedom was his former title, The National Post, where he made front page headlines again yesterday.

As it goes, actually, he got more than just front page news. In addition to the interview with him on the front page, the whole of page 6 was turned over to a Conrad Black penned comment section headlined 'Unjustly incarcerated' where he laid out in detail why he was innocent, who was to blame, and what "really" happened at Hollinger. And all without further commentary from the Post's fine reporters.

Now we are all for freedom of the press, freedom of speech to the invidual, and freedom to do a whole lot of other things. But why exactly is a national newspaper giving such unembumbered press space to a convicted felon, and not an inch to any of those that have proven in a court of law why he should be behind bars? Surely the media, even a paper once owned by Black, has some kind of duty to present a more fair and balanced account of such events. Or at least to provide some analysis of the "news", if yet more bombastic denials of his wrongdoing really count as news.

We should be thankful at least though that one item managed to break the Black monopoly. Nestled at the top of the page above Black's trenchant commentary was a sidebar reporting on news that Canadians will at last be able to rate their favourite public washrooms. We're not sure how we all coped before, but even so we're guessing that Black's new home in the Coleman Federal Correction Complex in Florida won't be featuring too high on any national bathroom ratings.