Wall Street Journal on the value of ethical business

The Wall Street Journal conducted a test in which three groups of consumers were shown coffee and in a separate test they were shown t-shirts. In each test the group was told the products were “ethically produced”, a second group was told the products were made under unethical conditions, and a third group (the control group) was told nothing about the products.

The Wall Street Journal concluded that “consumers were willing to pay a slight premium for the ethically made goods. But they went much further in the other direction: They would buy unethically made products only at a steep discount.”. In the test involving coffee beans: the consumers given unethical information about the production of coffee beans were described as demanding to pay $2.42 below the control group, while the consumers given ethical information $1.40 over the control group’s price. WSJ also suggested a go-slow approach to maximize income for the effort noting that “companies don’t necessarily need to go all-out with social responsibility to win over consumers. If a company invests in even a small degree of ethical production, buyers will reward it just as much as a company that goes much further in its efforts.”.

So decades of trying to separate business from ethics are paying off for modern businesses; perhaps not as much as their owners would like, but still the climate is such that a token show of ethical behavior pays off as much as genuine pursuit of ethical behavior in earnest.

The frame for the debate with these tests and their results is clear: fitting ethics into the market is right and proper so long as there’s no room to critique the heartless market for its lack of ethics. No amount of death, dismemberment, starvation, birth defect, wage slavery, or suffering in any form can possibly compete with the pursuit of money and power. Doing right by other people is not valued for its own sake. This is the system people have created, maintained, and defended as a reasonable way to do business with one another. It’s okay to behave this way at work no matter who is adversely affected. Remember this extract of Mark Achbar’s commentary track from the excellent movie “The Corporation” (website) (Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, Speex) where he talks about how people can compartmentalize their wickedness?

For businesses, ethical responsibility is merely a market tactic—an ad campaign which will go away when ethical behavior becomes an unsaleable commodity (or perhaps not producing enough sales to justify the effort). The market must remain dominant, not asking the most important question one can ask: How should we treat other people? Hence even for the corporate “hero” of the “The Corporation”, Ray Anderson, there are strongly enforced limits on what he can say on the record without betraying his role as a corporate CEO. Anderson worked within those limits, perhaps struggling to do so.

Update (2011-08-13): Ray Anderson died August 8, 2011. Ralph Nader gave him high praise in an article celebrating Anderson’s effort to decrease Interface carpet’s ecological impact and Anderson’s work in sharing what he learned. Wikipedia has a summary of his endeavors.