Thinking about business and ethics

I teach a course on the money side of food, and in it, we start by considering the question of ethics in business practices. If I were teaching it in Humanities I would probably talk about ethics as “ideology”, but these are Commerce students and they need to see some obvious links between what they learned last year (stuff on globlisation and ethics) and what they’re doing now. In other words, to answer the question, “food and money, huh?”. The course is designed to help them to think outside the box, so to speak. (The damn metaphors plague me).

This year one of them had an interesting analysis of why ethical behaviour is important to business. It was very simple: without it nothing can be a true transaction. It’s the word transaction that is key here, implying, as it does, equality of exchange.

It is a perspective which is beautiful in its theoretical simplicity, but as 302 said recently, if only it were so simple. Unfortunately any transaction, however apparently “equal” (I give you something and you give me something in return), is always more than that. When I buy half a litre of milk to the value of R4.95, I am expecting not only that the price is fair, but that the milk is good, that the coffee it goes into will be satisfying, that the day that follows will be worthwhile, and so on. I realise this only when I get home to discover that the milk is sour and everything that depends on it sours too. Here the question of “ethics” is a little obscure, because the example of milk is fallible. It is not (necessarily) the shop-owner’s fault that the milk is sour. But it demonstrates the extent of my emotional investment in a seemingly simple transaction.

What happens, then, when the thing you are buying represents a real person? Chef-branded commodities are not only cool kitchen gadgets, but a piece of so-and-so in your home that will inspire you to be (or cook) like them. How can you smash garlic in your Jamie Oliver mortar and pestle without thinking, “Go on, my son” or “Pukka”? How can you grill chicken on your Foreman grill without imagining yourself as a lean, mean machine? How can you wear orange crocs and not think of Mario Batali?

And here’s the question then. What do you do when you have the thing, when you’ve made it yours – the mortar and pestle, the grilling machine – and then you discover that the person that made you want it is not worth respecting anymore? If Jamie Oliver turned out to be a rapist or a serial killer, would you keep smashing garlic in the mortar? Or would you throw it out? Would you only then disassociate the thing from the brand and justify keeping it by telling yourself that it’s a good mortar and had nothing to do with Jamie in the first place?

The really interesting question is whether we have the right to be upset. Imagine the worldwide anger and disappointment if Oprah turned out to be a paedophile. How many of those angry people would stop to think that perhaps it is not Oprah who has conned them into trusting her, but that they have duped themselves?

Do we ever have the right to believe that we know anyone at all?

I say keep the mortar and pestle and smash garlic with a vengeance.

2 Replies to “Thinking about business and ethics”

  1. I pulled out my heavy bright ethics, code of conduct book which is on my desk – yum – ‘our commitment to integrity’ and thought – now where does food belong?

    Page 30 – gifts and entertainment -we live in a golden age of ethics but it does tend to be Enron-ish perhaps we need to start thinking of it in terms of ‘meat and potatoes’ a little bit more and less in terms of corruption.

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