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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Consumer Rights and Corporate Responsibility

"Consumer Rights and Corporate Responsibility" was the theme of the annual conference of the Center for International Business Ethics (CIBE) in Beijing, China, a partner organization of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. The conference was held Oct. 26 -27 in Beijing Sun City, and attended by scholars from around the world.

Stephan Rothlin, CIBE Secretary General, noted, "From the latest recall of potentially harmful toys by Mattel, to poisonous pet food and harmful toothpaste, it is clear that the issue of product safety in China can no longer be ignored." Rothlin found "disturbing common trends" between these scandals: an obsession with price cutting measures and the pursuit of profits at any cost."

Markkula Ethics Center Executive Director Kirk O. Hanson serves as CIBE's honorary chair and gave the closing remarks at the conference. In his talk, he summarized the seven main questions conference participants had debated:

  1. What are consumer's rights in China? Speakers chronicled the growth of consumer rights globally and in China, including newly passed laws requiring safer and more environmentally friendly products.
  2. What are the mechanisms by which these are achieved? Speakers described a variety of such mechanisms including government action, enlightened self-interest on the part of corporations, "fair trade" pressures from abroad, and social investment funds.
  3. What is the ethical obligation of government to help secure consumer rights? Product safety and environmental laws including effective enforcement and sanctions were discussed.
  4. What is the ethical obligation of the individual consumer to achieve these rights? Here, conference participants urged consumers not to purchase illegally manufactured products, but rather to actively look for "green" or "socially conscious products." They also counseled consumers to complain to the companies if they received faulty products and to encourage government to tighten consumer laws.
  5. What is the ethical obligation of corporations in securing these rights? Corporations, the participants said, must obey the law, not only the letter but also the spirit. They should not be looking for loopholes, but rather should support effective enforcement. They should also be aware of the role that conflicts of interest play in creating temptations to ignore consumer safety and should look for ways to create incentives for their own managers
  6. Where will China's values and ethics be grounded in the next generation? Because values undergird consumer rights, China must focus on elements of its traditional values that will sustain consumer protection.
  7. How will China's understanding of consumer rights be integrated with global concepts of consumer rights? Among the topics debated was whether demands from abroad for higher quality products and for more environmentally friendly manufacturing are just protectionism or are genuinely motivated.
Nov 1, 2007