At my old job we used to always have arguments about which companies we were comfortable working with. If Halliburton came to us and said they wanted to be better on human rights (and we believed them), would we work with them? What about Lockheed Martin? Or Philip Morris?
What about Pepsi?
Weapon and tobacco companies are probably the only American industries we conceive of as inherently immoral. The products they manufacture and sell are so damaging that it doesn’t matter how just or unjust their operations are. They’re so morally compromised by what they’re making that how they make it is irrelevant.
This is appealing as a principle, but its edges are more blurred than we acknowledge. Once you identify AK-47s and Lucky Strikes as products the world would be better without, you can’t just stop there.
Take soft drinks. Like tobacco, soft drinks deliver short-term pleasure and are hazardous if overconsumed. The soft drinks industry, also like tobacco, has specifically designed their product to encourage overuse (increasing portion sizes), addiction (caffeine) and consumption by youth.
Obesity kills more people than lung disease every year. Companies whose products are basically obesity-in-a-can bear a significant amount of responsibility for this. The line isn’t as direct as that between tobacco and lung cancer, but is that really the only distinction?
In my time in human rights, I did some work with mining companies. Would the world really be that much worse off if every diamond company threw up its hands and said, ‘From now on, the shiny rocks stay in the ground.’ With all the human rights violations linked to diamonds, fuck it, let’s find something else to decorate our fingers and our ears.
But while we’re at it, why stop at diamonds? Other than some industrial purposes, we could probably do without gold, too. All of our handheld electronics use a mineral called coltan, which is basically only minable from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it fuels conflict and feudalism. We can do without that too, right?
OK, so there’s obviously a line between uzis and iPods. I’m not saying that we should start classifying industries into categories of moral acceptability. I just think that it’s more complicated than the products themselves.
If a tobacco company paid all of its workers a living wage and genuinely contributed to agricultural development in its supplier countries, would it be as morally acceptable as Wal-Mart, which has basically done the opposite everywhere it’s operated?
One of the great moral shifts of the last 15 years has been the growing acceptance of the moral implications of our consumer choices. From our Nikes to our oil, we accept that everything we buy is the end of a thread linking companies to governments to workers to suppliers to communities. No one gets to ignore that anymore.
But I don’t think we’ve worked out the full implications of it either. Pull on the It’s what you make thread long enough, and you disqualify every product other than bottled water and baby clothes. Pull on the it’s how you make it thread and you can buy a ballistics missile as long as the factory pays its workers and pays its taxes.
After working on human rights and business for the past five years, I’m no closer to weaving this together into a moral standard than I was when I boycotted Shell in the fifth grade. All I know is that certainty obscures more than it illuminates. And you should probably drink less soda.