Yesterday, on my Business Ethics Blog, I published a short blog entry about an ethical dilemma faced by a coffee shop.
The dilemma — and disagreement between co-owners — was whether to offer the standard range of sweeteners and whiteners with their coffees, or whether to impose a vision of what counts as healthy additions for coffee. Oversimplifying: should they offer artificial sweeteners or not?
It’s a real-life case. And it sounds like a small matter, but with the recent politicization of and moralizing about food, the question not surprisingly became a bone of contention for the people involved.
My argument is essentially this:
1) The evidence is thin for any health advantage for “real” sugar. In fact, “real” sugar is known to be unhealthy, whereas for artificial sweeteners the question is still up in the air.
2) The quantities involved are tiny, so relax.
3) If it’s even a close call, go for consumer autonomy — the freedom to choose.
That’s not to say that a coffee shop can’t make “all natural” a part of its branding, and choose condiments accordingly. It’s just that no one should confuse that with making a clear-cut ethical decision.
It is an ethical question to the extent that telling the truth is an ethical question.
If you make a public assertion through your branding that “artificial sweeteners are always wrong but sugar is fine if you want it,” you had better be able to back that up with a clear understanding of the science and societal implications.
If it’s “we don’t like artificial sweeteners or the colour teal” or “our artificial sweetener of choice is stevia because we prefer dealing with smaller companies” that’s one kind of statement. Alternatively, if it’s “we don’t have any chemicals because GMOs kill babies” that’s a very different kind of statement that carries a heavier ethical load. The problem comes when the statement is so open that people interpret it with their own biases and the received message may be quite different from the one intended and it would be disingenuous to claim otherwise.
Excellent point — if the company makes a pronouncement at all, it ought to be honest, and its pronouncement ought to be justified.
The pronouncement can be implicit — not carrying artificial sweeteners when other businesses in that market do is a very open statement. If they elect not to carry them, ethically they should be prepared with a true and defensible statement when asked.
Let’s discuss one of those artificial substitutes: Aspartame. It is a migraine trigger for me. I am not the only person who has linked it to migraines, it is a common substance in the list of migraine triggers to avoid. There are studies that indicate it has extremely negative effects on the brain. The larger question about truth concerns the truthfulness of the chemical industry and the billions in profits endangered if this chemical is removed from the approved food additives list.
OK, but how does that relate to the dilemma posed above?