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.