The difficulty of ethical choice

We are no longer surprised to hear about corruption in business or government, but it is surprising to find evidence of corruption within the natural and organic markets. It seems like natural products should aspire to a higher ethic. Yet, even the most reputable aren't above criticism.

In a recent scandal surrounding a nonorganic fertiliser that was marketed as organic, Earthbound Farms, along with four other companies, claimed that it 'didn't know' the product contained ammonium sulphate, a prohibited substance.

Is this the same as Timothy Geithner's claim that he 'forgot' to pay $34,000 in self-employment taxes before the US Senate approved his appointment as Secretary of the Treasury?

In the fertiliser incident, the term 'forgetfulness' can be replaced by due diligence, or lack thereof, on so many fronts. The certifying agency, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), and the five farms all did not apply the meticulousness necessary to check the authenticity of the fertiliser. Certainly the fertiliser company was fraudulent, but what about the others? Was this honest oversight, or an ethical breach? Months after the case, it is apparent that certification for organic fertiliser was nothing more than a presumption that the manufacturer was telling the truth coupled with the fact that the CDFA suspected fraud as early as 2004.

Why do so many act unethically? Is it because of carelessness, forgetfulness, greed, turning a blind eye or simply a case of being too trusting? While we all bemoan such disappointing events, it is assumed that conscience will guide us each toward ethical behaviour. However, as good and bad becomes more complex, conscience may not be enough. It can only guide us if we are already clear about what is right and what is wrong.

In an extraordinarily complex world, we don't always know what is right or wrong without carefully thinking through the implications of our actions. When people say they 'didn't know' or they 'made a mistake,' what they often mean is they didn't think the matter through well enough to follow their conscience.

We often think that the discipline of ethics is easier than it is. Black and white, it seems simple, but complexity works against ethical decision making.

Consider David Sinclair, a professor at the Harvard Medical School, and a researcher well known for his work on resveratrol, the purported youth-serum compound found in red wine. Sinclair held a paid position on the scientific advisory board of Shaklee Corp, and spent months making appearances and promoting a product called Vivix Cellular Anti-Aging Tonic. Shaklee claims it is 'the world's best anti-ageing supplement,' and suggests one could 'live 25 years longer' with its use. Sinclair is reported to have claimed he worked with Shaklee "…to make a product that … could actually activate … genetic pathways that can slow down ageing."

After speaking with The Wall Street Journal, Sinclair resigned from Shaklee. "To my dismay, I have found numerous uses of my name and reputation on the Web and in other media that implies endorsement by me of Shaklee's Vivix product," he wrote. The company asserts that Sinclair approved all uses of his name in advertising materials.

Sinclair's story suggests the importance of knowledge in ethical decision making. After getting more involved, he then learned more about the meaning of what was expected. With this new knowledge, he altered his participation.

Whether he may have acted unethically in brokering his Harvard credentials to endorse a product for substantial compensation is a question that may have to be resolved in the courts.

The Greek philosopher Socrates believed that we would all make the right choices if we had enough knowledge to understand the issues. In daily life, we must make many ethical decisions and frequently without adequate contemplation. Sometimes we make mistakes and say it is because we 'didn't know.'

The people in the examples presented here likely will correct their courses and take more responsibility in the future. Trusting Socrates' wisdom, only those most ignoble among us would choose to do the wrong thing once we gained adequate knowledge.

Lindsay Moore, PhD, is CEO of KLM, a management-consultation firm, an adjunct professor of law at George Washington University Law School and co-author of Intellectual Capital in Enterprise Success: Strategy Revisited, published by Wiley.
Respond: [email protected].

In 2002, the organics' industry let out a sigh of relief, finally a uniform certification system with credibility, validity, transparency and, unfortunately, naiveté. The recent 'fertilisergate' scandal Moore writes of is but one example of a company taking advantage of profits above integrity. As unfair as it may seem, Earthbound Farms is the largest corporate entity beneath a pile of malodorous mistakes and thus bears the burden for the most public scrutiny for others' actions. This editor believes the real burden lies with government agencies and third-party certifiers.

If anything, the organic industry is robust with idealism but weak in healthy scepticism. There is an expression in journalism: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." Such is the case for organic certification, whether it is food or fertiliser. If the supplier says its organic, government and third-party certifiers have a responsibility to check it out and enforce the standards.

In the case of California Liquid Fertilizer, there were many opportunities to check the validity of its claims, in other words fact check. To date, the investigation has revealed the following unforgivable flaws in the regulatory process:

  • Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) is federally authorised to evaluate the validity of organic farming products based solely on the information (paperwork) submitted by California Liquid Fertilizer, but it has no jurisdiction to levy stiff penalties.
  • The Calif. Dept. of Agriculture can issue fines and demand that products be removed from the market. The state learned of the fertiliser problem as early as 2004 from a whistle-blower who claimed that for five years prior the company spiked the fertiliser with synthetic nitrogen.
  • A state inspector confirmed the allegations in 2005, but the product remained on the market for another six months allegedly because the state was overwhelmed by the subsequent E-coli spinach food-safety situation.
  • In January 2007, the Calif. Dept. of Agriculture settled with California Liquid Fertilizer with formal charges of improper labeling and an inadvertent chemical substitution. Port Organic fertiliser brands were pulled from the market.
  • To Earthbound Farms' credit, it has taken the lead to assist California Certified Organic Farmers certifier (CCOF) to institute a stringent organics-verification process for all liquid fertilisers. All EB farmers using any kind of liquid fertiliser must subject the materials to nitrogen testing and validation by an independent, third-party lab. For smaller farms, they will have to rely on new standards set forth by OMRI and USDA due for approval this fall.

I suppose as long as profits and passion go hand-in-hand, organic and controversy will do the same.

—Kimberly Lord Stewart.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.