The bulk of my work here at the BLSCI in past semesters has involved coaching management students on the debates they have to do in class. These debates revolve around some issue in business ethics, with one side having to argue what I would very simplistically call a pro-ethics position, while the other is charged with advocating the line of multi-national corporations—a sort of pro-unregulated-free-market position. Some examples of the topics of these debates are: “Is CEO compensation justified by performance?”; “Are Sweatshops an Inhumane Business Practice?”; “Is Hydrofracking a Safe Practice?” One thing that has surprised me in doing this work is that the teams assigned to the pro-free-market side (i.e. the teams having to answer “yes,” “no,” and “yes,” respectively, in the above debates) always feel they have a harder job to do. On one hand, I find it heartening that at least some percentage of the future generation of business people struggles when tasked with arguing against putting regulations on capitalist economics if people’s health, social justice, and human dignity are at stake. But I also find it curious, because it seems like in the real-world iterations of these debates, at least as they are hashed out in the United States, the free-market-over-regulation stance is the one that is winning, generally speaking. I often find myself in the dubious role of referring students to position statements by Walmart, Goldman Sachs, Coca Cola, Nike, or Halliburton so that they might glean some of the communications strategies adopted by those firms to win the actual debates on these issues.
One of the other debate topics for this management class is: “Should we require labeling for Genetically Modified Food?” And, every time that I’ve worked on this one, the students on the “no” team have felt they got the short end of the stick, prompting me to ask them if labeling for Genetically Engineered (GE) foods is required in the U.S. (it’s not) and suggesting they see what Monsanto has to say about it. A recent media flare-up around this issue provided a fascinating example of the intricate communications tactics used by groups on both sides of the real-world debate about GE labeling and the different fronts on which this battle is waged. Last November, a petition was circulated online that accused Starbucks of teaming up with Monsanto to sue Vermont for recently passing a law that will make it the first state in the nation to require labeling of GE foods. Making the case that even singer Neil Young was now kicking his Starbucks habit over the company’s alleged involvement in the suit, the petition encouraged other coffee addicts to follow suit. Starbucks denied the accusations made by Young and the petitioners, arguing that the corporation is merely a member of the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which is the entity actually suing the Green Mountain State.
An interesting aspect of this “controversy,” for me, is that the law’s supporters would make Starbucks their main target (though Vermont’s Green Mountain Coffee was also named in the petition), rather than, say, Campbell Soup Company, Target, or Aurora Organic Dairy, which are also members of the GMA. It seems to me that this strategy speaks to Starbucks’ success in branding itself as at least having a modicum of social/environmental responsibility: Whereas few people would be shocked that a company like Coca-Cola (another GMA member) might fight a GE labeling law, the petitioners clearly felt they could raise some eyebrows by implicating Starbucks. Of course, they also undoubtedly banked on a good percentage of Starbucks’ customers being invested in the GMO labeling issue. Finally, it was amusing to watch the media latch on to the spat between Young and Starbucks. For a few weeks after the petition was released, it seemed like the debate about whether or not it was right for Young to target Starbucks became the central question with respect to Vermont’s bold move in requiring GE labeling, rather than the actual merits of the law or GE labeling in general. At least I now have more fodder for the next round of students to tackle the classroom version of this debate. One of them will surely arrive at our coaching session after a late night of research, fueled by a cup of Starbucks.