blood diamond 88.
(photo credit: )
Hollywood has an ongoing fascination for dramatic business ethics issues.
In the "Business Ethics in the Movies" Web site, I found references going back to the 1932 film American Madness, dealing with the highly topical subject (then) of bank runs. One of the most popular movies in theaters right now is "Blood Diamond" the plot of which revolves around the use of the diamond trade to finance violent insurgencies in Africa. The film has brought attention to decades of efforts by NGOs, governments, intergovernmental organizations such as the UN and the diamond industry itself to prevent such "blood diamonds" from reaching the market.
The more general business ethics question such situations arouse is, "When is it unethical to buy any product when there is knowledge or likelihood that some kind of wrongdoing was involved in producing or obtaining it?"
Some relevant questions: How serious does the wrongdoing have to be? Some groups boycott goods made in third-world countries because the working conditions don't meet first-world standards - for instance, for environmental protection. That seems to me to be an extreme and counterproductive condition. In the case of blood diamonds, producers are enslaving and slaughtering people in order to protect their markets, and it seems that this should certainly be prominent on our ethical radar.
What stages of the production process bear responsibility? Does responsibility fall only on the perpetrator? On the middleman who buys from him? On the company that processes the merchandise? Does it extend to the store, or even to the consumer?
How much responsibility do we have? Is there an obligation to totally boycott these products? To voice our concerns? To be willing to pay a small premium for safe alternatives? (Certified diamonds, dolphin-free tuna, etc.)
My approach to the consumer-responsibility question is that responsibility is proportional to the opportunity for effective impact on the problem. A diamond or other item that was produced through wrongdoing is not inherently "tainted," and there is no meaningful responsibility for action if the situation is such that one individual can have no possible impact on the source of the problem.
Let us suppose that a certain brand of shoes is produced by slave labor. A single consumer who silently declines to buy the shoes is not going to make any impact on the problem. If there are a fair number of consumers who inform merchants that they can't buy this brand of shoes because they are produced by slave labor, they will collectively have some impact as the word will probably make its way down the supply chain. If there is an organized and publicized boycott, joining it will almost certainly compel the producers to weigh the cost of consumer resistance against the benefit of lower costs.
Another consideration is the cost to the consumer. Paying a huge premium for a certified good when this will have a trivial impact on a relatively minor infraction doesn't seem justified. But in some cases the cost of activism is small, either because the price differential is insignificant or because the item is a luxury that the consumer can easily do without. And often the impact is large, and the infractions serious.
The Talmud teaches that anyone who has the ability to protest wrongdoing in his household and fails to do so, bears responsibility for the members of his household, and that the same holds for anyone who has the ability to protest wrongdoing in his community or the entire world. On the one hand, this imposes a heavy responsibility as a person who has done no wrong at all can be considered liable for the sins of the entire world. But there is also a corresponding leniency: the responsibility applies only to someone "who has the ability."
My research indicates that well-organized consumer actions, especially certification campaigns, have been very effective in forwarding their aims. Consumer actions against "sweatshop conditions" have led to much stricter standards for policing suppliers in a number of leading retailers - certified coffee (for environmental and labor conditions) is becoming very popular and the concerted efforts of all parties in the diamond industry seems to have had a big effect. Various Web sites report that since a concerted international effort to overcome the "blood diamond" trade, the share of such diamonds on the market has been reduced from about 4% to around 1%. The reduction occurred prior to the release of the movie, and diamond sellers claim that consumer action today is unnecessary since all reasonable steps are already being taken.
Of course that doesn't mean that all causes are necessarily worthy.
Many economists believe that efforts to improve wages and conditions in third-world "sweatshops" harm welfare in host countries by reducing demand and jobs - not everyone finds the fur industry ethically objectionable.
But when a consumer is convinced that a particular supplier practice is unethical, then taking part in organized and constructive consumer action to limit abuse is often an effective, and thus responsible, approach.
The writer is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (www.besr.org), an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.