retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Yesterday, in a rather unorthodox Eye-Opener, we reported about an Ethicist column in the New York Times Magazine questioning whether it was ethical to tell Koko, a gorilla who is extremely adept at sign language, about the death of Robin Williams, who she met once, 13 years ago. If Koko was sad at hearing the news, which press reports suggested, was it ethical to bring unnecessary sadness into her life?

Chuck Klosterman, who writes the column, used the question from a reader to address broader questions about ethics and consciousness … and I found the piece to be unexpectedly fascinating. (You can read the entire column here, if you wish.)

I did say that I wasn't sure what the business lesson was, but some of you did…

One MNB user wrote:

I picture a group of executives at a very large corporation sitting around and having a similar conversation about sharing info with and gathering info from their customers, employees, and stakeholders. I sometimes wonder if some companies feel consumers, employees, and others comprehend issues at the same level as a gorilla. (Take the GMO labeling issue for example.)

Business lesson:  While what we share with Koko may or may not need to be censored, don’t assume those you work with and sell to are in the same classification.  Ask questions and share information, because “If any of these questions could be irrefutably affirmed, everything we think about gorillas consumers, employees, and stakeholders would need to be re-examined …”

MNB reader Chris LaBella wrote:

I think this article and its subtext lays the foundation for a great transparency and ethics lesson or argument that can be applied to many industries, especially food production and retail.  We can go on and on about this, but in the interest of saving time, I will only attempt to get the ball rolling.  Should industries inform consumers about any or all details involving their products even if it will bring “unnecessary sadness” or for that matter any emotion, necessary or unnecessary, into their (consumers’) lives.  As we have seen, if the “details” mean sustainability and responsibility, then yes companies seem to do a better job (obviously to their benefit) about informing consumers, but when the “details” involve genetic manipulation, unethical rearing and slaughter, or questionable ingredients (some of which may be harmless to consumers) significant amounts of time and money are invested in keeping information from the public, which is a shame.  Personally I am all for transparency and letting the consumer decide, but an argument can be made for the other side too.  Do you really want the image of a doe-eyed calf with restricted mobility to pop in your mind every time you cut into a delicious veal chop?  And given the information will it really change consumers’ tastes?  Furthermore, if this does elicit an emotional response should we then question the industry’s ethics in its entirety or should we instead question our own ethics in creating the demand, which producers are only meeting because of an apparent opportunity?  We must also remind ourselves that ethical norms and standards shift when considering one culture or another.  You won’t see any all-beef patties on the McDonald’s menu in India.  Also, given sufficient transparency and information, will consumers use it properly, ignore it, or will they use it to swing from one misinformed camp to another forming proverbial one sided lynch mobs that overlook reason and blindly adhere and support those with similar ideals (correct or not) and crucify anyone who offers a different perspective.  Scary stuff I know, but we've seen it with the GMOers and the "if you eat that piece of bread your head will explode" gluten movement (don't get me wrong, Celiacs is very real, but not as prevalent as currently perceived...long story short, a lot of misinformation going on about wheat and GMO's to name a few).

I guess what I am trying to say is are the producers of products the bad guys and is it their lack of transparency that makes them unethical or their operations in general that do it?  Or do we blame the unethical consumers that create the demand?  And what do we do when what is unethical to one, ethical to another?  Furthermore, do consumers have enough education to decide what is good or bad, ethical or unethical?  Additionally, how did we let it get this far, are we oversensitive and how much further will it go?  And finally, is transparency the be-all end-all answer?  Some may say no, but I believe it is a step in the right direction.  At least with all the facts consumers can make their choice (whether correct or not) and if demands shift and industries disappear or are replaced by others then so be it, because in the end the people have, one way or another, spoken.

Just some food for though.  As always, thanks for the great daily reads on MNB, your insight has always been appreciated.

Yikes. I'm a little chagrined thatI didn't see the lessons that other folks did.

I learn something every day.

From MNB reader Jan Fialkow:

Yet another reason why I read MNB and recommend it even to folks outside the industry. My thoughts yesterday morning paralleled yours. Obviously, you are great thinker!

Not really. I'm just smart enough to know how much I don't know. Plus, I'm a sucker for a learning experience.

The other day, I mentioned that I'd be okay with a lower minimum wage for young people just breaking into the job market (a training wage?), and a higher minimum wage for people who are older and needing to support themselves.

Which led one MNB user to write:

Of all the bizarre opinions you've expressed, this has to take the cake.  Do you really think people should be paid on the basis of their sob-stories instead of the jobs they do?  Aren't you one of those people always ranting about "equal pay for women doing the same jobs as men"

Wouldn't you think employers would immediately staff-up with lower-wage students at the expense of "adults trying to support themselves"?

Are you auditioning for that national-nanny-in-charge-of-hiring-decisions position The Obamanists must be talking about?

There is just so much vitriol and bitterness in that email that I don't know quite how to respond to it.

So let me address just one of those comments. I don't think that someone who is working a full-time job, or two part-time jobs that have them working 50-60 hours a week, and yet cannot support themselves, or feed and clothe their families, can fairly be accused of offering us "sob stories."

I don't think that describes all minimum wage workers. But I think it is short-sighted … and culturally unsustainable … to have a society in which a lot of people work very hard and yet find it difficult to survive, especially at a time when there is a sizable percentage of society that is doing very well. And I think we have to figure out a way to address the situation in a way that is economically feasible and politically viable.

Preferably without vitriol, which only adds to the toxicity of the debate, and without ideology, which (to quote the great Pete Hamill) generally serves as a substitute for actual thought.
KC's View: