A feature article by two academics in today’s Wall Street Journal provides further evidence that the concept of corporate ethics is an oxymoron—or at least is a far cry from human ethics. The piece, by Remi Trudel and June Cotte of the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School of Business, is headlined: “Does Being Ethical Pay?”
The authors don’t seem to think there is anything odd about discussing behavioral norms exclusively in terms of the material payoff. They unself-consciously refer to corporate social responsibility as a “big business” and thus don’t have any problem analyzing it in the same terms used for any investment.
Trudel and Cotte start out asking the question: “How Much are Ethics Worth?” What this means in practical terms is: how much extra can companies charge for products that are advertised as having been produced in an ethical manner. They ignore the question of how much more such goods actually cost to produce and consider only how much consumers are willing to pay. Based on experiments with a random group of adults, they found that people are willing to pay significantly more for the ethical goods, which suggests that consumers are a lot more ethical than companies.
Amazingly, the authors then address the question: “How Ethical Do You Need to Be?” Here they found that consumers would, for example, pay a differential for a shirt advertised as 25 percent organic but not much more for one said to have a higher organic content. The lesson Trudel and Cotte seem to draw from this is that companies should make some effort to give their products an ethical patina but need not go too far, since there will not be a proportional return for the additional effort.
The analysis of Trudel and Cotte is at the same time appalling and refreshing. It cuts through the social responsibility hype that permeates so much large-company marketing these days and shows that corporations will do the right thing only if it somehow enhances their bottom line. Lenin famously said that capitalists would sell the rope with which they would be hanged. Today’s corporate executives are happy to sell us the appearance of social responsibility—and, if we are lucky, the real thing.