Corporations forsaking moral purpose in the pursuit of bigger profits have been shaving corners off quality standards for years. Their "faster and cheaper" techniques may be churning out more products (and more profits), but just how much needless death and disease are we willing to take?
Most recently we've been hearing about bad products made in China. Lead-based paint on children's toys, poison in dog food and tainted toothpaste are a few others. In fact, the US Consumer Product and Safety Division tells us 60 percent of all recalls in the US this year have been from goods made in China.
In a July, 2007 broadcast of Morning Edition on National Public Radio, it was reported that Chinese officials, after bowing to international pressure, admitted that "as a developing country, China's current food and drug safety situation is not very satisfactory."
Obviously China is making headlines because products being produced there stand out as the largest culprits. But they're not alone.
Take foodstuffs, for example. Food products shipped to the United States are not required to be grown under the same standards as found in the US. But much of what comes across our borders simply gets a wave and a prayer.
An article appearing in the USA Today earlier this year quotes William Hubbard, former Associate Commissioner with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). According to Hubbard, "The FDA has so few resources, all it can do is target high-risk things, give a pass to everything else, and hope it is okay."
Hubbard was also quoted as saying "The public probably has the perception Ö that they're more protected than they really are."
Considering that the FDA now inspects less than one percent of all the food coming into this country (down from eight percent in 1992), that's probably quite true.
With regard to food items, one expert interviewed for this column who asked not to be named told me that in Mexico, human waste is often used as fertilizer.
"It's really troublesome that several hundred school children contracted hepatitis a few years ago after eating strawberries shipped in from south of the border," she said.
Contributing to the quality problem is the speed with which everything now happens. Last year a shipment of cantaloupe melons was stopped at the border while inspectors took a few for testing. But by the time they discovered the cantaloupe had salmonella and the stores were notified, all of the cantaloupe had been sold - and presumably consumed.
When companies are more focused on profits than acting responsibly, I think US consumers have good reason to be concerned about goods coming into the country.
Unfortunately, irresponsibility causes more problems than just illness. We also see manufacturing being moved to countries with lax environmental laws. Not only does the environment get polluted, the US Center for Disease Control has documented an increase in birth defects in towns where such practices occur.
Starting just this past week, highway safety has also become an issue. Trucks can now come across the US border from Mexico and they are free to deliver goods anywhere within the United States - without being subject to the rigorous safety requirements placed on US trucks. While this new law may lower operating costs at profit-focused companies, it increases the likelihood of highway accidents and with them, needless deaths.
Companies offshoring their operations to third world countries have also been known to exploit meager economic conditions. More than once I've heard "it's okay to pay lower wages in poorer countries because the cost of living is so much lower."
But according to an article at Newsday.com, what we consider to be essential food items cost the same in Haiti as they do in New York. Considering that over 2/3 of Haitians have no formal employment and 80 percent live below the poverty line, I'm not sure I buy that argument anymore.
Don't misunderstand: I'm all for capitalism. But we are going to continue having problems if companies focus on profit while forsaking corporate social responsibility.
I started this piece talking about corporations losing their moral purpose (a term borrowed from Nikos Mourkogiannis and his book Purpose). Mourkogiannis says companies focusing on excellence, altruism, heroism, or discovery are operating with a moral purpose.
But companies focusing on expediency have an amoral purpose - financial gain only for the sake of financial gain. According to Mourkogiannis, such companies can be very successful in the short term, but they won't endure.
Morals. Responsibilities. Call them whatever you want. But if corporations continue to ignore them for the sake of more profits, the world will continue to experience unnecessary illness, polution, death, and disease. Isn't it time we answered the question, "How much is enough?"