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Do Companies Like Apple and Starbucks Really Deserve Their Ethical Chic Reputations?

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In her book, "Ethical Chic," Fran Hawthorne examines six companies with glowing brands to see if they deserve their halos.

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Ethical Chic isn't really a muckraking investigation; instead, Hawthorne lays out a balanced view of a company's rights and wrongs. A firm like Apple can seem almost schizophrenic if you compare its hipster image and emphasis on creativity -- presumably progressive traits -- with its slow pace on issues such as the need to reform working conditions for employees in its Chinese supply chain (Foxconn plants). On Apple, Hawthorne asks, "...can a company be hailed as socially responsible if it's average? And how much credit should it get if the action was forced on it by public pressure? For a company to be truly ethical, CSR [corporate social responsibility] concerns should be built into the corporate culture," which is something unapparent in even Apple's American locations, as its stores and headquarters are home to as much performance pressure and micromanagement, as the sweatshops in China.

In the book, these companies' brands and their practices are finally married, revealing a more complete image of the companies we think we love. For instance, Starbucks likes to champion that it buys fair trade, but not nearly all of its coffee is. American Apparel is vocal on gay rights and immigration reform, but few ever consider the social implications of the blatant sexism on display in its ads and allegedly rampant within corporate headquarters. Even fewer consumers are aware of the racism that occurs when it comes to the company's hiring practices. Moreover Timberland, with its fun outdoorsy image and claims of environmental stewardship, might not be as green as you think it is. The cows used to produce the company's leather create an enormous carbon footprint.

Hawthorne admits that some of her points are nitpicks and that the requests made of companies often directly oppose their ability to do business, but readers of her book might be surprised by the specific social wrongs committed by certain companies and the amount of arm-bending it has taken to get them to change their ways.

At the end of the day, Hawthorne isn't asking these companies to stop making money and instead, save the world, but really to make good on the images they sell. Companies know that they're not selling products and services as much as a sense of style and an experience. The cleaner a brand looks, the better consumers feel about supporting it, so it's in a firm's best interests to clean up its act.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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