Canadian Business recently reported that two major companies—McDonald’s and Target—have dropped egg supplier Sparboe Farms after concerns arose regarding animal welfare at the company’s egg-production facilities. It’s a small PR hassle for titans like McDonald’s and Target. But it’s clearly a huge hit for a company like Sparboe.
This case raises two important points, ones that go far beyond the relationships between mega-chains and their suppliers:
One has to do with the blurry boundary between practices that are unethical, on one hand, and practices that are in some more vague way unacceptable to the public, on the other. Animal welfare issues are a great example of this. Philosophers continue to debate the moral significance of animals and their suffering. Some will tell you that all suffering, human or not, is of moral significance. Others will tell you that ethics is a human device for making social living more congenial and sustainable. On the latter point of view, animal suffering might be ugly, but it’s not unethical, except to the extent that we have an obligation not to tread upon other people’s sensibilities. But this distinction matters little, in many cases: a company’s suffering can result from either—either from behaviour that is actually unethical, or from behaviour that is simply seen as being so.
The other point concerns supply-chain responsibility. Notice that McDonald’s, for its part, doesn’t deal directly with Sparboe: it gets Sparboe eggs via Cargill Inc., the agricultural giant that supplies all of McDonalds’ eggs. This raises an interesting question about supply-chain ethics. Any company is clearly responsible for, and should be accountable for, its own behaviour. And a company is pretty clearly also partly responsible for, and should be accountable for, the behaviour of its suppliers, at least to the extent that it knows, or should have known, about those suppliers’ behaviour. But what about the behaviour of their suppliers’ suppliers? The modern trend is toward nearly infinite responsibility, up and down the supply chain. That much is clear. But the moral principle behind such responsibility is less clear.
Sensible thinking about supply-chain accountability has to differentiate, I think, between retrospective culpability, on one hand, and responsibility to make changes going forward, on the other. Is McDonald’s responsible for brutal behaviour by employees of a supplier’s supplier? No. But do they have a responsibility to take action, now that they know about it? Yes.