Should We Be Applying “Ethical Buying” To Safety?

Ethics scale

By Phil La Duke 

Recently I was introduced to the concept of “ethical eating”; for those of you who are, as I was, ignorant of the concept, ethical eating is the practice of avoiding certain foods because you believe the animals were treated unethically (presumably swindled out of their life’s savings, I’m guessing.)  Actually, it turns out that “ethical eating” is just the latest pretension that has been around for decades—call it vegetarianism, veganism, or whatever the hipster-come-lately superiority complex.  As someone who was raised on a farm and an animal lover, I both eat meat and believe that animals should be treated humanely. I reject the idea that someone is morally superior simply because of his or her diet (who picks the aphids off the broccoli they eat?) It is, as my daughter is fond of saying, “a first world problem”—people who struggle to get enough to eat rarely wrestle with the moral conundrums associated with the rare meal they manage to acquire.  But the idea got me thinking.  Why are so many people ready to apply economic and political pressure in defense of animals while ignoring the very real plight of the people who grow and harvest our food, make our clothes and computer goods, deliver our mail, and generally provide the goods and services that make our lives possible?

Let me be clear, I’m not advocating a course of action here. Rather, I am merely asking a question: “Should we be using our considerable economic power to influence how organizations feel about safety?”  Is it right to continue to buy goods and services from companies that have shown a wanton disregard for the safety of their workers?

Economic boycotts are hardly a new idea, and even boycotts designed to pressure companies to provide better lives for their workers have been around for many decades (I date myself in doing so, but I would point to the Caesar Chavez call to boycott grapes as an example of such an action).  But as effective as economic boycotts can be, they are seldom—if ever—directed at a company because of its safety record.  Some would argue that if we truly care about worker safety we should avoid doing business with companies that hurt workers at all costs.  Are they correct? Before you answer, consider:

  • It isn’t easy to get a good picture of a company’s safety record.  It’s fine to say that you aren’t going to do business with a company because they have a poor safety record, but unless the company is embroiled in a public scandal regarding its safety it can be all but impossible to determine the kind of job a company does in protecting its workers.
  • Just because a company doesn’t injure a lot of workers doesn’t mean it does a good job in worker safety.  Safety is about lowering the risk of worker injuries, a company that doesn’t hurt a lot of workers doesn’t necessarily mean that it does a good job managing and lowering risk, in fact, it may not have a lot to do with good safety management and a lot to do with good old fashioned luck.
  • Just because a company hurts a lot of workers doesn’t mean it is guilty of depraved indifference.  I make my living teaching organizations how to change their corporate cultures and the customers I have dealt with over the years have run the gamut—from organizations that hurt many workers but don’t know how to stop the trend to organizations that take huge risks and are lucking enough to avoid catastrophe to organizations that do a good job but that want to do a great job. I’ve learned that it is wrong to assume that just because an organization hurts a lot of workers that they don’t care.  Sure there are companies that honestly don’t care whether or not they hurt workers—they see workers as a consumable commodity that get used up and replaced—but these companies are relatively few and far between.
  • Punishing a poor safety record really doesn’t do much but make you feel better.  In many respects, boycotting a company that has a bad safety record is much like “ethical eating”; it makes you feel morally superior but it really doesn’t change anything.

Should We Just Give Up?

If things are going change they have to change at the business-to-business level and fortunately things are changing.  Many companies use prospective vendors’ safety records as a criterion for selection in the bid process. This trend is encouraging but it’s only a start.  If you’re serious about using your economic power to affect change in workplaces you can get involved.  First, talk to your company’s purchasing department and ask to what extent the safety performance of potential vendors is used in the selection process.

Make The Case For Safety

If your company doesn’t use safety as a criterion for doing business suggest that it start.  Safety is more than a moral issue; it’s also a business issue. Organizations that ignore safety tend to fail at other things as well; things like quality, customer services, reliability, and cost. In short, companies that don’t care about safety tend to cut corners or are just so unsophisticated that they can’t function as reliable business partners.

It’s fine to give lip service to caring about worker safety, but until we get personally involved we really aren’t doing anything praiseworthy. On the other hand, most of us haven’t quiet removed the splinter from our own eye, so maybe we needn’t worry, just yet about the plank in the eye of our vendors.

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