The manufacturing processes of many products around the world often have devastating consequences for humans, animals and the environment. A revealing example is the smartphone market, an industry that has been growing rapidly since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 (Arthur 2012). In the first quarter of 2018, nearly 384 millions smartphones were sold, with Apple, Huawei and Xiaomi as the largest merchants (Costello and Hippold 2018). The iPhone, Apple’s flagship model, is (partly) produced by the Chinese manufacturing company Foxconn, whose factories produced about 137.000 iPhones a day at its peak moment (Chakrabortty 2016). However, various NGO’s have previously pointed out that human rights were repeatedly violated during the manufacturing process, varying from working weeks of 96 hours to publicly humiliating badly performing workers (Chamberlain 2011). Resulting from these conditions, there have been several suicide attempts by factory workers, and although Apple promised improvement, research by China Labour Watch from one year later found out that working conditions were not improved (Lau 2010) (China Labour Watch 2013). Malpractices such as these are not only exposed at Apple, as it is claimed that the whole smartphone industry is plagued by (hidden) scandals about the working conditions of its workers (Velazquez 2017). At the same time, Amnesty International has stated that the smartphone industry is not only “perpetuating poor labour conditions” in Southeast Asia or Latin America, but is also inciting armed conflicts in Africa because of the worldwide demand for specific minerals that are used in smartphone devices (Velazquez 2017). Furthermore, the production of smartphones is creating environmental damage as well. One the one hand, the energy consumption of their data centres is increasing every year and thus plays a huge role in climate change. On the other hand, the mining of the (scarce) natural resources used in smartphones is damaging natural surroundings (Nield 2015) (Belkhir 2018). As a result of the harm done to the environment, animals are endangered as well, as climate change and environment pollution have a huge impact on animal populations and their chances of survival (World Wildlife Fund for Nature 2018).
The described issues within the smartphone industry are illustrative of many global production processes. From Victoria’s Secret’s make-up products that are tested on animals to the cheap Primark clothes which are produced in dreadful working conditions (PETA 2018) (Parry 2016), many companies cause suffering all throughout the world by producing their products at the lowest costs. While the goal of maximizing profit by keeping production costs as low as possible fits in Western, liberal market thinking, the suffering caused by trying to accomplish this objective does not. For instance, the examples of human suffering I have given clearly contrast with basic, traditional Western values that are grounded in Natural Law and Human Agency. The former states that human beings are all part of the Law of Nature, and thus all have a right to “natural justice”, even though they “have no association or covenant with each other” (Corbett 2009). The latter claims that “having a life” requires the indispensable conditions of agency and action as necessary goods, and thus freedom (Gewirth 1982). Both approaches are built on fundamental beliefs about which rights humans should have, which led to the current widely acknowledged Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many Western states claim to support the 30 rights in this declaration, including the right to life, liberty and security of person, the right to not be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and the right not to be held in slavery (United Nations 1948). However, it is apparent that these basic human rights are ignored by many large multinationals, and that they leave no room for any form of justice or human agency. Furthermore, also contemporary Western thought concerning animal welfare and environment preservation is not in adherence with the discussed issues. The United Nations adopted a wide range of Sustainable Development Goals including establishing more sustainable production and consumption patterns, combatting climate change and protecting and conserving animal and natural life on both land and in water (United Nations 2015), but all these goals are obviously strongly diverging from the malpractices in the multinationals’ production processes that cause animal suffering and environmental damage.
Because there is a clear connection between the production processes and the harm done to animals, humans and the environment, and it is clear that this cannot be ethically justified, attempts have been made to tackle these issues. Most of these efforts assume that the harm could be prevented by interventions from specific actors. For instance, acclaimed philosopher Thomas Pogge claimed that the “the worse-off are not merely poor and often starving, but are being impoverished and starved under our shared institutional arrangements”. Pogge established several reasons how this is happening, including “the effect of our shared constitutions” and the “uncompensated exclusion from the use of natural resources”. Both of these unjust mechanisms are very much related to what I have described in the first paragraph, as the shared constitutions include global trade agreements and free-market mechanisms that allow multinationals to have their factories in cheap-labour countries, with the consequence that these countries (and thus their peoples) see their natural resources used for the most-well of without a reasonable compensation. Because of this, Pogge proposes a model in which nations would pay a tax on any resources that they use or sell (Pogge 2001). However, even though Pogge states that “modesty is important if the proposed institutional alternative is to gain the support necessary to implement it”, such theories of Distributive Justice are still very difficult to execute due to the fact all countries would have to cooperate and accept such a tax. Also, determining the specific tax values and at which point in a production process the tax should be applied is claimed to be very difficult in practice (Hayward 2005). These are substantial flaws, as Stanford’s philosophy professors Julian Lamont and Christi Favor have pointed out that “Distributive Justice is not an area where we can say an idea is good in theory but not in practice”, because “if it is not good in practice, then it is not good in theory either” (Lamont and Favor 1996). Thus, although the ethical arguments might be strong, its pragmatic value is not, making Pogge’s model difficult to implement.
While Pogge’s ideas are focused on global institutional orders and governments, associative professor Nien-hê Hsieh claimed that not governments, but multinationals themselves “have a responsibility to promote well-ordered social and political institutions in host countries that lack them”. Hsieh grounded this endeavour in the negative duty to not cause harm. More specifically, he claimed that it is inherently wrong to benefit from systems in which corporate activities cause potential harm. Following these ethical arguments, Hsieh provides specific guidelines for corporations to take their responsibility by for instance avoiding participation in corrupted governmental institutions or by contributing to “broad based economic development”, which entails higher incomes and improving health and human capital to give individuals a chance to “participate in economic activity” (Hsieh 2009). While Hsieh combines his ethical arguments with practical solutions, it seems that global businesses are unfortunately very reluctant to change their production methods. Even while many trademarks try to forcefully improve the production processes, Fair Trade coffee is for instance often still produced in questionable circumstances (Weitzman 2006), and despite strict European regulations on animal testing, cosmetic companies continue to test their products on animals by simply moving their facilities to the US (PETA 2018). Hence, even with specific proposals for improvement on the meso-level of global business, it remains very challenging to make a change.
Where Pogge focussed on governmental changes, and Hsieh aimed at changes within the multinationals that are contributing to the harm, well-known political theorist Iris Marion Young argued for responsibility on the part of the citizens that are using the products. She argued that citizens are not directly blameworthy for global labour injustice, but that they do have a “political responsibility” in which “an agent shares political responsibility with others whose actions contribute to the structural processes that produce injustice”. Such political responsibility relates to Pogge’s ideas on institutional reforms, but in Young’s theory, such reforms will emerge at an individual level and need to develop into social movements as solely one individual “can make almost no difference by trying to disconnect from the processes” (Young 2004). Although Young does not offer specific examples of actions that could follow from this political responsibility, one can imagine that this could for instance take the shape of collectively boycotting certain products and/or only buying products that are fairly produced with respect to animals, humans and the environment. Yet, even though this might happen now and then, such movements are often small-scale and temporary. International trade policy expert Kimberly Ann Elliott explained this clearly by stating that there is not only a collective action problem on the part of the manufacturers, who are not willing “to bear even the smallest costs”, but also on the part of the buyers, “who are looking for the cheapest possible price for the product and aren’t willing to raise that price a bit if their competitors aren’t” (Matthews 2013). At the same time, although it could be asked from middle- and high-class citizens to only buy fairly produced products, this is probably too demanding for people who simply do not have the money to buy these products that are often more expensive.
Concluding from the last paragraph, it seems very difficult to find a way to prevent harm during production processes due to the comprehensiveness and demandingness of the solutions that are proposed so far. However, I believe that there is another solution. Between the production process and the consumer buying the produced product, it is marketing that connects these two sides of the product. Marketing is considered a fundamental part of selling a product, as it creates acceptance for the product and defines the quantities in which the product should be produced. In the end, marketing can fulfil one of the main objectives of commercial companies: profitable sales (Wilmshurst and Macay 2002). This explains why all the multinationals mentioned so far spend huge sums of money on advertising their products, as Apple for example spent 1.8 billion dollars on advertising in 2015, a 50% rise compared to the year before (O’Reilly 2016). Through huge, global campaigns, companies promote those products whose production caused severe harm. Without marketing, multinationals would not be able to bring these products to such a large audience.
Currently, in most marketing legislation, nothing is said about the origins of the advertised product. Thus, a company does not have to justify its production process. Regulations rather talk about the content of marketing campaigns themselves, as British government policies for instance oblige advertisements to be accurate, legal, decent, truthful, honest and socially responsible (Government Digital Service 2018). Yet, the regulations do not mention any requirements for the product itself. Even the British advertising watchdog ASA, which has drawn up the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing, only discusses details of the content of the marketing (ASA 2018). Thus, when promoting the iPhone 7, Apple has to show accurate information about the specifications of the device, but does not have to prove that the product is produced via a sustainable process.
To tackle this issue, I propose the following principle for marketing ethics codes and national legislation:
Any advertising for products that are developed in a production process in which humans or
animals are harmed, or in which any damage to the environment is caused, shall not be allowed.
Further research is necessary to establish specific strategies to implement the suggested principle. How will this be controlled and monitored, and which institution can be made responsible for administering the fairness of products? Or, in other words, when is a company allowed to advertise their product and when not? One might look at existing best practices, such as Fairphone, a company that produces a smartphone that is developed through crowdfunding and that aims to ‘puts humans first’ and be ‘conflict-mineral free’ (Akemu, Whiteman and Kennedy 2016). Regulation might include a checklist, based on the standards of companies like Fairphone, to determine if a cooperation can promote their product. At the same time, further expansion of marketing legislation might include funds for social enterprises in order to promote their products and expend social entrepreneurship by setting an ethical example. Looking at the Fairphone, more than 100.000 models were sold in 2016, which is quite a sizeable number when considering the size of the company, but not much in comparison to the sales numbers of Apple or other large brands. Research indicates that increasing the sales of these social enterprises is a “formidable challenge” as they operate in “highly-competitive market environments” (Akemu, Whiteman and Kennedy 2016). Because of this and in consideration of its goal to diminish suffering, support of these companies needs a much higher priority. If such companies were given the opportunity to promote their goods more easily, it will not only increase their position in a global market, but also stimulate the existing superpowers to change their discourse.
Yet, the proposed new marketing principle would be the starting point. Because this principle is applicable on a national level via legislation and/or via marketing ethics codes, I strongly believe that the problems of comprehensiveness in larger political models can be avoided. At the same time, it is not necessary to wait for self-proposed ethical consideration from the multinationals themselves, as only by facing severe consequences in the country in which they sell the products, they will be forced to change their working methods and therewith take their cooperate responsibility. After all, if companies cannot promote (and thus sell) their products, their survival is in jeopardy. And lastly, when using regulation, there is no need to wait for collective action that cannot be forced on individual citizens and which therefore may never materialize. Hence, a strict marketing principle via legislation and ethics codes will pressure companies to stop the malpractices I have discussed in this paper, which will consequently avoid harm to humans, animals and the environment.
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