“No! No! – not the nanny state,” governments cry and then hand more and more responsibility to the private sector.Parts of the sector take the challenge seriously making corporate responsibility part of their ethos. Others pretend. Or worse still, some use a few good philanthropic deeds to cover up their otherwise anti-social behaviour.
Even while James Hardie & Co were knowingly producing mesothelioma-causing products, it established a philanthropic trust. One of the beneficiaries was the Baker Medical Research Institute.
Industries involved in tobacco, junk food, alcohol and gambling may well be playing at the same game.
Tobacco companies were finally restricted from sponsoring sport. This privilege was not surrendered without a vigorous fight. The intention was to create an image of the good corporate citizen.
Fortunately, the vast majority of the people (and later governments) saw right through the ruse, which attempted to associate healthy activity with an unhealthy product. In the case of tobacco, a product that is so unhealthy that, when used exactly as directed, kills half of its users.
Other companies are a little less obvious in their intention – but it is appropriate to question the motives.
Alcohol companies are spending huge sums backing sporting events. Is the motivation altruistic?
The recently released report of the Australian National Preventive Health Agency exposes the reality. The alcohol industry has found a loophole in the advertising code that allows exposure to the young. The alcohol industry also loves to have its product linked to healthy activity. Young people watch sport on TV with the grounds and the players bedecked in brands of beer and spirits. Good corporate citizenship?
The junk food industry is a little less apparent, but perhaps more insidious. How many junior sporting teams are wearing the logos of the junk food industry? Once again, tying unhealthy products with a healthy activity. The target group designed for “pester power”. The parent attempting to guide healthy choices invariably frowned on by the rest of the team.
It is difficult to criticise an organisation such as Ronald McDonald House. For people who live in remote areas or need support when someone is hospitalised this is a great service. Care is provided for the vulnerable at a time when it is most needed.
However, McDonalds, the company behind this laudable service, is also providing a product that has a substantial impact on obesity levels in Australia. While the average daily intake of energy is recommended (in NSW) at 8700kJ one Mighty Angus Burger Meal provides 6767kJ. Well beyond the daily intake of many people. Nothing else to eat for the rest of the day!
Really good corporate behaviour masks really poor, really unhealthy products at the same time as assisting in providing a very positive corporate image.
The gambling industry operates in a similar way. Consider the contribution the clubs industry makes to Canberra. Elderly people have a place to go and participate in a range of activities. There are good meals at affordable prices. Many sporting and other community organisations are supported by the clubs’ industry. At the same time, there is a devastating impact of gambling on those who are vulnerable and their families. The pokies are largely run by community members making it so much harder to be critical of them as good corporate citizens.
The Hellenic Club, as one example, has made a significant contribution to the Canberra community on multi-cultural issues, providing venues, meeting rooms and other patronage at minimal or no charge. It has now purchased the Yarralumla Preschool that was closed down by government. Is this good corporate citizenship? Is it reinforcing its own position in the community to more ably fight restrictions on poker machines – as the clubs’ industry has done so vigorously over the past couple of years? Is it attempting to salve its conscience against damage caused by gambling?
The questions around good corporate citizenship are complex. Motivations are rarely based on just one aspect. It is not good enough to simplify to “nanny state”. However, there are important questions for society at times of struggle over what should be regulated.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.