Moralists

Companies make profits by serving consumers. Richard D North urges executives not to become
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The International Fund for Animal Welfare's (IFAW) full-page advertisements in the broadsheet newspapers are stiff-arming Sir Ian MacLaurin, the chairman of Tesco, because that firm sells Canadian salmon. The argument goes that if he boycotts the salmon, the Canadian government will stop the seal-bashing on its ice-floes.

However, it so happens that the seals in question are thousands of miles from the salmon we are asked to resist eating. It is also probable that a salmon's death from "drowning" in air is more horrible than a seal's having its brain stove in. Not one in a thousand of the T-shirt moralists who respond to IFAW's shock tactics will know or care about such fine- tuned matters.

And yet it is not on those grounds alone that I loathe this campaign. Nor is it merely that consumer boycotts are (forgive me) usually a rather blunt instrument. It may be right to call for a boycott of a nation's products in order to stop some horror in that country. Conceivably one should not buy Nike shoes because they are made by cheap labour in Asia (though I fear the cheap labourers might not agree).

Possibly it is right to try to halt French nuclear testing by refusing to buy the country's claret (though the French claret industry has enough problems with competition from heroically moral countries such as Australia and Chile). It may even be right to try to change the regime in Nigeria by boycotting Shell (though one fancies a Shell withdrawal would lead to worse environmental damage in the Niger delta).

IFAW's campaign goes beyond these ploys by asserting that Tesco (as opposed to the Tesco consumer) ought to make a moral choice about where to buy salmon. Worse, it also stigmatises the hapless Sir Ian. This latter problem looks partly to be his own fault: the advertisements quote him as saying in 1984 that the company should stand up and be counted (on what was actually a different issue), and so IFAW now appears to be asking for a degree of consistency from him.

Both practically and ethically, I am afraid that firms should never claim to be capable of being a force for good. And they certainly should not offer to censor products on behalf of consumers. That way lies the closure of almost all businesses and also an unwarranted control of customer choice.

Firms cannot pay the kind of wages some moralists might argue for; they cannot be as green as Greenpeace would like; they cannot be as virtuous in picking their trading partners overseas as civil rights campaigners would like. Firms operate in a morally and ecologically dubious world. Not merely are they often ill-placed to make the required judgements: provided they do not hide what they do, and where, it is someone else's business altogether to decide whether they should be allowed to trade in a particular way.

Firms can only hope to be decent citizens, and in their case that comes down to obeying the law. Firms make profits, governments make rules: that is a respectable ordering of things. What stinks about this advertisement is not that it may be a wrong-headed call for a consumer boycott. The creepiness much more consists in making a pariah of an individual who, were he to obey every exhortation of every pressure group, would have empty shelves, from which it follows that we would probably have empty larders.

I hope that Sir Ian enjoys his knighthood, and will heed a warning that going for a halo as well would be dangerous. More widely, the boss class in firms ought to think carefully before allowing their public relations people to fashion caring, goody-goody images for their enterprises: virtue is not something to be traded in.

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