Ethix Forum – Issue 14

Are there genuine moral/ethical concerns raised in your mind by globalization? What and why?

A few years ago the Hewlett-Packard Company experienced technical problems with some LaserJet printer products in some areas of Asia, especially India, particularly during the environmentally extreme conditions encountered during the Monsoon season. The specs for this product, like all of our products, had been developed for use in “normal” office environments, such as are typically encountered in the Western world.

Customer complaints soon after product introduction revealed that they were being used in temperature and humidity extremes far outside of the design specs. Furthermore, the locally available paper had some filler additives that, when combined with a very high humidity environment, made for disastrous printing results. Visits by several engineers confirmed this; and they now better understood why failure rates were so much higher there than anywhere else in the world.

Some product divisions chose not to compete in that market. We could also have justifiably said, “sorry, the product isn’t being operated within spec.” We chose, however, to work with local folks and re-engineer the product to operate under their conditions. Simply telling them to leave air conditioners and dehumidifiers on all the time would not have worked. The unreliable infrastructure and very high electric utility cost would not have made that a viable solution. Telling them to use a paper not locally available, but which could only be imported at great expense was not a viable option either.

The expense of product reengineering was certainly not justifiable from a short-term ROI perspective. However, we felt that taking a longer term view, and recognizing that growth rate will soon render India as the most populous country — even surpassing China—made the decision to stay in the market and work with local distributors and customers to maximize satisfaction the correct one. Adapting to local circumstances and thinking long-term — these strategies seemed right from both the moral/ethical and business points of view in our global era.
John R. Erisman
Recently retired Technical Marketing Manager
Hewlett-Packard Company, Boise, ID

Globalization is clearly glamorous but the allure of glamour often obscures other realities. The fundamental danger of globalization is the reduction of diversity (biological and cultural) and the homogenization of the world. Globalization forces us to ask: Why protect diversity?

Take a simple example: It is fun to make connections, and to make money doing so. But this excitement of connections easily distracts us from addressing problems at home. How many business executives travel the world but lose touch with their families and neighborhoods? How many promote the global economic boom but forget their roots and the need to protect nature in their own back yards?

The problem of globalization is made concrete when we consider what happens not just to cultures but to nature. Increasing world travel by businesspersons, scientists, engineers, politicians, scholars, news reporters, and tourists, stimulates economies, advances scientific research, and excites the world. But the shipping of food products and consumer goods around the globe, certainly contributes to biological transformations that both dumb down species diversity toward what poet David Quammen has termed the “planet of weeds” and sets the stage for outbreaks of emergent terrorist diseases.

Beyond the physical dangers, however, the greater threat is that human beings will lose their sense of self and place. As Simone Weil argued at the end of World War II, we have a “need for roots” that cosmopolitanism cannot ultimately satisfy. Whether globalization can moderate its momentum to accommodate such a need remains open to question.
Carl Mitcham
Professor of International Studies
Colorado School of Mines, Golden, Colorado

The focus of the recent WTO protests in Seattle, New York and Europe was on human rights and environmental issues. The protesters were predominantly from “northern” and “western” countries. Workers in those countries fear the loss of their advantages as more and more jobs are moved to lower wage areas of the globe. But how do citizens from these other parts of the world feel about globalization? Do they have enough political freedom or the requisite organization to enter the conversation?

Tom Athanasiou’s Divided Planet: The Ecology of the Rich and Poor looks squarely and critically at GATT, WTO, IMF, etc. The author observes that today’s northern greens “were naive to believe that the old questions about justice, power, and emancipation could be put off while the earth was saved” (p.53). I wonder the same about technology: are we naively putting off these old questions while technology races onward?
Tim Gammell
Portland OR

What sort of global culture are we creating? British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has called for the development of a global culture of human rights and democracy (Global Ethics Foundation, Tübingen, Germany, June 2000). Other analysts, however, talk about the spread of “McWorld” — a global consumer culture. Would a true global culture build on a common history and a collective memory? Globalization may make us aware of our differences as well as our commonalities. The global resurgence of religion and cultural pluralism is one of the most important issues of our era.

The impact of telecommunications, world travel, and multinational business, suggests that we now have global responsibilities as well as global privileges. The borders of our states and nations are no longer the borders of our moral responsibility.

“Unilateralism” — American or otherwise — undermines any chances of forming common responses to the various crises of our globe. Business, like government, is challenged to find constructive ways of working together with the peoples and institutions of the world.
Scott M. Thomas
Lecturer in International Development
University of Bath, England

Globalization is representative of the drive for economic efficiency, the belief that in size lies a maximization of value for stakeholders. But growing size means also concentration of power that easily dilutes the moral conscience. Having fewer and more powerful companies creates greater scope for manipulation of the market, of small governments, of who can access what products at what price (e.g., the cost of AIDS drugs which means inaccessibility to the areas in the world with the greatest problems).

Other problem areas are cultural intrusion and disturbance as companies expand into vastly different cultures from the home market, and the challenge to hold on to some kind of social (and maybe also environmental) responsibility while seeking to fulfill the profit motive. In this context it is interesting to observe the way some of the major oil companies are now seeking to position themselves in their advertising — e.g. Shell which portrays itself as culturally and environmentally sensitive in the search for oil.
Denis Browne
Managing Director, Alfa Laval (South Africa)
Judith Browne
High School teacher