Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ethical sunscreen: getting it covered?

The end of July. School is out, the beach is beckoning, and North America is just emerging from a massive heatwave. OK, so its grey and chilly in much of Northern Europe right now, but for many of us, summer is truly here. And like all self-respecting sunworshippers, we're all too aware that this means it is time for sunscreen. The question is, though, what is the responsible choice among the myriad brands in the market? And what counts for responsible when it comes to sunscreen anyway?

Over at the Ethical Consumer website, help is at hand. The UK-based magazine publishers and all-round ethical shopping wonks produce ethical buying guides for just about everything. Their buyers guide for sunscreen is available free and includes probably more information than anyone could possible want about how the various brands stack up against a wide array of social and environmental issues. Top of the list of things to avoid are potentially harmful chemical ingredients, including various parabens and cinnamates. Not to mention one of the more controversial ingredients around, nanoparticles. These are widely used in sunscreens, but have raised concerns around safety and environmental issues. Of course, the most responsible sunscreen is one that actually works. Natural, non-chemical ingredients are all well and good, but not if they don't guarantee you the protection you need ... or has been the case in the past, do not actually provide the SPF protection they claim on the package. With the EU tightening up regulation a few years ago, some of the "natural" producers have struggled to comply and stay in the market.

That said, unsurprisingly for an organization that has always held multinationals in low regard, the top-ranked brands according to Ethical Consumer are still largely small-scale natural product specialists, such as Yaoh organic hemp sunblock, and Green People sun lotion. Among the more well-known international brands, Clarins, Malibu, and Nivea are among the best scorers, though it has to be said that they all come in at less that 10 out of 20 on Ethical Consumer's scoring system. But this is mainly because the sunscreens are not just being ranked on their ingredients and other product-specific qualities. Ethical Consumer has always taken a more holistic view of a product's ethics, taking into account the producing company's policies and practices on a wide range of issues including employee rights, sustainability reporting, political involvement, and much more besides. In fact "product sustainability" is only one of five categories that a product is ranked on, the others being "environment", "animals", "people" and "politics". In essence, they evaluate the brand, not just the product.

Such a wide ranging assessment may not be for everyone. Some people just want to rate the product, not the whole corporate culture. In the past, you'd just have to stick with the final assessment given by the company doing the rating, but organizations like Ethical Consumer are now providing more sophisticated tools. We love the way they provide a customizable scorecard online so that you can quickly and easily prioritize the ethical issues that matter to you and de-prioritize those that don't just by using the sliding scales. And when you do, the differences between the sunscreen brands turn out to be more driven by company factors rather than simply product-specific factors. That's not to say these company factors aren't important. But clearly, not everyone is going to care as much about all the same issues. So customization is a technique that really works in ethical product ratings.

Where the sunscreen ratings don't quite convince though is on the real basics. People buy sunscreen to get protected from harmful UV rays. An ethical sunscreen has to be one that provides superior protection. But none of the more than 20 categories ranked by Ethical Consumer appear to include an assessment of actual performance. Maybe they just assume that if the products meet the legal standard then they are all of acceptable standard. But as far as we're concerned, ethical performance is not just about the ethical add-ons. It's also about doing the job the product is designed to do - and doing it well.  Marketers refer to this as the "core" and the "augmented" product. If ethical evaluations pay no heed to the core product benefits, then they miss out on half the picture. Its like lying in the sun and using sunscreen on everything except your most sensitive areas. Sure, you're taking precautions - but you're still gonna get burnt exactly where its going to hurt the most. Ethical rankings need to get the essentials covered.

Photo by Pedro Moura Pinheiro. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence  

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Murky Murdoch

To write about Rupert Murdoch, the Australian born media mogul and Chairman & CEO of Newscorp, in a business ethics blog seems somewhat tedious. Already in the first edition of our business ethics textbook nearly a decade ago we had a vignette on him and his conspicuous influence on governments and public opinion.

There is however now a good reason to take the subject up again. Murdoch and his British subsidiary News International have taken the old story to a new level (The Guardian maybe has the most comprehensive coverage on this).

Murdoch’s British tabloid ‘News of the World’ (NoW) has been in the headlines for a while for hacking into voicemail accounts of a number of celebrities. Actually the story is now lingering on since at least 2007. It only broke last week as to what the real extent of this scandal has grown into over the years: voicemail accounts, cell phones, bank accounts and legal files of some 4,000 individuals, 5,000 landline numbers and 4,000 mobile numbers may potentially have been hacked into not only by NoW, but also by other Murdoch papers such as The Sun or The Times. One of the things that gave the investigation extra spice was that among the targeted were many senior British politicians and – oh what sacrilege! – the Royal Family.

What really tipped over the debate is that NoW allegedly hacked into voicemail/cell phone accounts of abducted children, British Iraq war veterans or 7/7 victims. In the case of Milly Downing, a girl who was reported missing and ultimately turned out to be murdered, NoW not only hacked into her voicemail. They also deleted messages, which gave her parents the impression that she possibly might be alive – while the NoW ‘investigators’ already knew that this would be a false hope. At this stage allegations that NewsCorp has hacked into the phones of 9-11 victims are discussed in the media – which moves this scandal to a new level beyond just the UK.

First, it’s interesting how the ‘old’ story of media power over government plays out in this particular case. From Tony Blair on the one hand to David Cameron on the other – the intricate connections and the dependency of political leaders from Murdoch’s news empire has come to the fore once again. In Cameron’s case, the fact that he employed the already tainted NoW executive Andy Coulson as his communications officer has plunged his government into a crisis over those allegations. Ex UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown seemed to have stayed a bit cleaner here – one wonders if that is one of the reasons why the NoW published the health record of his then infant son.

No wonder then that a hard handed crackdown from the British government was somewhat difficult to assemble. It did not help that Scotland Yard, too, had obviously very cosy ties to Murdoch’s empire and for some time had the chief ‘hacker’of NewsCorp on their own payroll. The resignation of two senior officials this weekend just demonstrates how serious this has become. Yesterday’s reports on the death of Sean Hore, a whistleblower in the case asserting that Coulson knew about the hacking for years, just adds another layer of both tragedy and intrigue to what now looks the saga out of which crime fiction is made.

As an ironic aside, the entire scandal occurred in the first place because journalists were in fact doing actual journalistic work, which is: investigation. We have commented on the threat free media on the internet poses to this often costly side of news production by private news organisations. At the same time it appears that commercial pressure led to some rather ‘cost effective’ approaches into illegality to give way to sound journalistic work.

The ironic twist – and maybe the new angle - in all this seems to be that Rupert Murdoch and his family are now putting up at least the appearance of taking the scandal seriously just because they are a private company. Lets call it for a second the ‘commercial forces cleaning up the ethical misconducts of commercial media’-hypothesis. After all, more than anybody else the shareholders of News International now might ask serious questions about how events like this could happen which ultimately have – according to some accounts – reduced the value of the company by some 20%? And many alleged that Murdoch only threw himself into cleaning up the scandal to secure his bid for taking over the British TV station BSkyB.

It was interesting to watch Murdoch Senior and Junior appearing before the Parliamentary Committee in London today. The more both father and son tried to assert that they had no prior knowledge of the business practices, payments to lawyers, bribes to the police etc. – which makes sense in terms of litigation and other legal responsibilities – every shareholder must ask him-/herself about the corporate governance of Newscorp. If it is true that Chairman (Murdoch Sr.) and COO (Murdoch Jr.) had no knowledge of major operations what does this say about their fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders? Those investors who still trust the organisation will probably only do so because they know that informally the reality is maybe somewhat different.

Our somewhat reckless thesis here gets more fodder if we consider that the debate in the United States (which allegedly accounts for a third of Murdoch’s business) now focuses on whether News International (which owns Fox News or the The New York Post, among others) might be taken to court there because of the Foreign and Corrupt Practices Act. After all, one of the allegations in the UK consists of bribing Policemen to release private information to the NoW. No wonder, Murdoch Sr. now puts a serious face on cleaning up his organisation.

In a similar vein, it also cannot be overlooked how all the main global news organisations have zoomed in on this case. This is understandable for The Guardian or the BBC as domestic competitors, but also the New York Times, the Globe and Mail in Canada or pundits like Keith Olbermann now for weeks have the phone hacking scandal on top of their front pages or opening editorials. In a world of tough commercial competition in the news market it is only too understandable that the mishaps of Murdoch’s empire as a key competitor are a field day for those media players.

Will anything change? James Murdoch today announced in the hearing that his organisation is working on a new code of ethics. That much for solutions! – the sarcasm of this is certainly not lost on only the business ethics professor watching this. For us, the larger problem of Murdoch’s role in global politics is not that his organisations obviously resorted to shady practices in getting stories. It is still the fact that he personally wields enormous power over shaping public opinion. Blair, Cameron, or currently the ‘Tea Party’ movement in the US would be nowhere without his conglomerate backing them and providing a platform.

In this sense watching the Parliamentary Inquiry today was sad: as far as we can judge, the committee was staffed mostly by no-name backbenchers. No MP or politician of any stature (that is: with any strong future ambitions) would obviously dare to get into the way of Murdoch Sr. – who even in this ‘most humble hour’ of his career (as he put it today) could only barely disguise his contempt for them. Maybe those MPs should check on their cell phones or their kids’ health records or their tax returns – Rupert still has an army of ‘journalists’ out there who might return the favour one day in the future...

Picture by Surian Soosay. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Corporate responsibility infographics - the good, the bad and the ugly

Data visualization, or the creation of "infographics", has been gradually seeping into the corporate responsibility world. And its no surprise. When their designers get it right, infographics can tell you an important story in a wonderfully accessible way using cool, hard facts. But when they get it wrong, it's just, well..... a mess. Too much data and it is confusing; too little and it risks being banal. And using the wrong data can simply discredit the whole enterprise from the beginning.

So what does a good corporate responsibility infographic actually look like then? We've been taking a good look at the craze for infographics, and picked out some of the best and the worst that relate to corporate responsibility issues. There are more and more appearing every day, so we're not claiming to provide anything like an exhaustive review, but here are a few examples that we think give a good flavor of the potential and pitfalls of turning business ethics into pictures. And if you don't agree with us, then please tell us why in the comments field ..... or better still, create an infographic to explain it all!

The Good

There has been a few corporate taxation infographics doing the rounds in the last couple of months. What we like about this one from though is the funky design (you've gotta love that faux factory styling), the solid citations, and the clear storyline. Yes, it takes a fairly hardline anti-business stance, but it doesn't pretend the answers are obvious or simple.

How Corporations Get Out of Paying Taxes

Another powerful infographic is this one detailing the role that pharmaceutical companies play in influencing doctors to prescribe their medicines. We like it because although it is a little on the long side (click on the image for the full image) it tackles an important question; it is controversial without being sensationalist (again, the referencing is pretty tight), the design is smart, and it rounds out the story with advice on what you can do to make a difference. Let's call it activism meets journalism.

Of course, infographics can be a lot more than just simply static visuals. And they don't have to be critical of business! Videos, animations, music and all kinds of possibilities are out there to tell corporate responsibility stories in interesting ways. We like this one from Fortune and CNN because it offers some nice simple interactivity about something all of us care about - what makes some places better to work in than others. Based on Fortune's annual 'Best companies to work for' survey, it not only shows which companies score well, but also lets you search the kinds of words that employees use to describe their companies - the top ones being "people", "time", "family" and benefit". But some of the cross-company comparisons are really interesting. Whilst top spot holder SAS includes words like "care", "life" and "health", Goldman Sacks at 23 emphasizes words like "best", "firm", "people" and "individual". Just goes to show that what makes a firm good to work for is very much in the eye of the beholder.

The Bad

Corporate tax dodging again. But this time the infographic is less successful. Sure it has an easy to understand message, but it doesn't have the richness of data to be authoritative. For a start it doesn't cite its sources, which immediately threatens some of its credibility. Second, it doesn't look to explain any of the facts it presents, but instead relies on some slightly shonky political posturing. Good infographics should make you feel like you've read an informed newspaper article. This comes across more like a bumper sticker.

Corporate Tax Cheats Are Bankrupting America infographic
Source: US Uncut - No Cuts Until Corporate Tax Cheats Pay Up!

The Ugly

Sometimes, not even well researched corporate responsibility infographics hit the mark. Getting the balance right between telling a clear story and getting the facts on the table can be tricky. We wanted to love this incredibly informative infographic about the BP oil spill from 2010 by Carol Zuber-Mallison but frankly it just doesn't cut it like it should. It's simply too crammed with data. Sure, it tries to describe a complex situation of corporate responsibility, but if infographics are going to be successful they've got to render that complexity easily understandable in a single narrative. This tries to cover too much. Plus, given all the data, the referencing could be better. How else is anyone supposed to check the facts? So although this is an impressive effort in many respects - especially the crazily ambitious attempt to update it in real time - it's ultimately an infographic fail. Too much info, not enough graphic.