Companies through marketing, have convinced citizens that they have the same goals and values. In new the relaxed seller-buyer relationships, the golden rule of caveat emptor, (let the buyer beware,) seems forgotten. Companies give the impression that they are working in our best interests. For example ‘McDonald’s is proud to be a part of the communities we serve.’ they say. I don’t believe that companies work in the interests of any group other than their own. This is borne out by the current VW scandal. It is a timely reminder of companies’ self interests and their scant regard for the citizen’s interests unless the two happen to coincide. The scandal provides us with the opportunity to seize the momentum and make companies respect the interests of citizens, society and the environment.
Nitrogen oxides (NOx), the emission from diesel exhausts, has been the cause of perhaps 53,000 early deaths in America alone. VW have falsified U.S. pollution tests on 500,000 diesel vehicles, by installing software to make them appear clean whilst being tested. Once on the road, these vehicles would pump out as much as 40 times the allowed level of NOx. This problem could be eliminated through research and development (R&D). Last year VW spent €13.1 bn on R&D, more than any other company.
Instead, this year they have set aside €6.5 bn to cover recalls and other costs. It seems that VW were thinking they could get away with it, but have the insurance money, just in case. Their actions have shown contempt for the consumer, society, the environment and the law.
VW are not alone in their contemptuous attitude. GM, America’s largest car maker, knowingly sold vehicles with ignition-switch problems. The consequences have been fatal with at least 124 people dead and 275 seriously injured.
The problem pervades all industries. Monsanto’s engineered a growth hormone for cattle. Cows injected with Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) mature faster and yield more milk. Their milk is ‘chemically and nutritionally very different from natural milk.’ These cows are also more prone to health problems like lameness, reproductive trouble, udder infections and ‘mad cow disease’.
Scientists have warned that the milk contains substantially higher amounts of a potent cancer promoter and higher levels of antibiotics, bacteria and pus. Yet, this milk has been blended with natural milks and has been used in a series of products including butter, cheese and Starbucks coffee. The meat from these cows are used in burgers. rBGH is banned in Europe but was approved by the FDA who have refused to label rBGH produce so consumers can make informed choices.
The reporting of a story as important as this, is also subject to the corporate agenda and not the public interest. Fox News is one of 22 TV stations owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Monsanto’s rBGH product was the subject of Fox News TV show The Investigators. Fox told investigative journalists Jane Akcre and Steve Wilkinson that their rBGH exposé had to be edited to a Monsanto friendly format (interview below). This was because Monsanto and associated companies bought advertising. As Fox told Jane and Steve ‘the news is what we say it is’. Keeping Monsanto on side was in Fox’s best interest despite the health risk to citizens.
Companies have continually showed that they are morally indifferent entities. CEO’s tell us that they have assumed social responsibility as part of their Business Plan. This is true only insofar as it is a convenient marketing tool. However, social responsibility is ignored when it could undermine a company’s performance. It is all a question of the cost benefit analysis as the above scandals demonstrate. Writing a cheque either before or after a court case is therefore not enough. For in reality, companies are only interested in pursuing their own business goals, irrespective of the horrors they might wreak on society.
Action should be taken while the VW scandal is at its height to force companies to respect the interests of citizens, society and the environment. It will need a two pronged approach. The matter must be addressed by government. There must be effective legislation which includes criminal liability and changes to company practises. Fines must be punitively high and managers convicted for criminal offences and not just allowed to resign. The proposals must be prepared independently of Government by a consumer watchdog. We need independent regulators with the powers to act. Something considerably more robust than the European Regulators that have indulged the car industry.
The second prong should be consumers remembering the golden rule ‘let the buyer beware’. We should spend our money where businesses demonstrate that they are honest and ethical. Business only cares about the bottom line and we must shop in a way that affects that.
Akcre and Wilkinson – The Monsanto Scandal