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Where Do Ethics End and Profits Begin?

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Last week, the UK parliament’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee heard evidence from supporters and critics of homeopathy to discuss its effectiveness and whether it should continue to be funded under the National Health Service. Now, I am friends with a professional aromatherapist, and also have a personal interest in herbal medicine. Nevertheless, I do consider homeopathy as not much more than woo and magical thinking. Still, nobody is trying to force sugar pills or highly diluted tinctures down my throat, and if it makes other people happy, so be it. What troubled me most through, was the admission from the professional standards director of Boots, the largest chain of chemists in the UK, that his company continues to sell homeopathic remedies despite there being no evidence that they work, because that’s where the money is.

Now, this post isn’t an denunciation of homeopathy, as that has been done with far more wit and skill elsewhere. If you want to discuss the evidence or otherwise for magical water, there’s all manner of blogs and websites, both pro and anti, for you to do so. What I’m more concerned with is whether there is a moral obligation for businesses to refuse to stock products or provide services that are essentially separating fools from their money with the minimum of fuss, like the 419 scammer I’ve used to illustrate this post. Now, 419 scams are fraud, hence illegal. But there are hundreds of other products and services that can legally be bought and sold which promise much but offer little in the way of results. Should businesses restrict themselves in offering these, or does caveat emptor trump ethical considerations? Is the profit motive the only thing that a business should care about?

My two biggest vices are alcohol and tobacco, which have been proven to do harm but remain legal. However, restrictions on their sale mean that retailers who value their licences will not sell either to children. Would they be within their rights though, to refuse to sell to an adult with an alcohol abuse problem? What about a pregnant woman who asked for a bottle of wine and a pack of cigarettes? On the one hand, you could argue that refusing to sell to either individual is doing them a service; on the other, if one shop doesn’t sell to them, they could probably get served elsewhere, or even get somebody else to do the buying for them. Is it OK to overlook ethical considerations to prevent a lost sale?

In the case of Boots and the homeopathic remedies, if you asked one of the trained pharmacists in their shops about the efficacy of homeopathic remedies, they would be obliged to tell you that there is no scientific evidence that homeopathic remedies work better than a placebo, but they would still happily sell them to you. Now, if I were a pharmacist, I would feel uncomfortable doing this. Yes, a customer may go away with a product that they believe will work for them, but I would be conflicted about sending them off with something that didn’t really address their problem. I’m sure that there are probably pharmacists working at Boots who try to steer customers to proven allopathic remedies, but as long as Boots as a company continues to stock and promote homeopathic remedies, consumers are receiving mixed signals: “No, it doesn’t really work, there’s no evidence for it, but hey! We’ve got a three for two promotion on magic woo this week!”

There is still a boycott effort for Nestlé products because of that company’s behaviour in promoting its infant formula products in developing countries. While this hasn’t stopped Nestlé from being one of the largest food companies in the world, the fact that the boycott is still ongoing does illustrate the extent of consumer anger at the company’s actions. Now, Nestlé is primarily concerned with earning money for its shareholders, and if there are profits to be had in morally dubious but legal behaviour, one can’t really be surprised if it pursues that particular course of action. It would be nice to imagine that the Nestlé board are touchy-feely hippies who care about the impact their activities have around the world, but that is not how they ended up heading a major company. It’s unrealistic to expect anything different.

There are however, companies that do put people before profits. The Fair Trade companies, or those that choose to keep production in their home countries despite the costs of production being far lower overseas, who pay their employees a living wage; all could probably make more money if they emulated their purely profit-driven competitors, but they have chosen not to. While this may lead to lower profits in the short term, they are banking on the fact that their ethics can serve as a valuable marketing tool when describing their ethos to consumers, and that this will translate into longer-term profitability, especially if consumers are willing to pay a premium for guilt-free products and services.

It’s probably fair to say that Boots doesn’t particularly care whether homeopathic remedies work or not, so long as they continue to sell. I doubt that any managers agonise over the patina of respectability they give to homeopathy by stocking products for which there is no evidence. Then again, the company is a chain of chemists, not a moral arbiter for consumer’s buying habits. If Boots didn’t stock homeopathic pills, customers looking for them would go elsewhere. Instead, while their head of  professional standards is willing to admit that the magic woo probably doesn’t work in front of a parliamentary committee, the profit motive dictates that the company will continue to give shelf space to products that are merely another means of getting consumers to shell out for something they don’t need. For other companies, though, this could be a step too far in the search for profit.

[Image by AMRosario]


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