I'm thinking about buying a new car.
I've narrowed my choices down to a few manufacturers. One was slow to react to a defective part that's been linked to 124 deaths. Another paid a $1.2 billion fine after the FBI discovered evidence the company tried to cover up a deadly safety problem. Still another got caught rigging its cars to pass emissions inspections even though they actually pollute up to 40 times more than the legal limit.
Incredibly, year-to-date sales at two of the three manufacturers are up over last year's. It seems consumers don't particularly mind.
All of this poses an ethical dilemma for would-be car buyers like me:
- Even if the particular car I'm interested in is safe, is it right to support a company that puts other peoples lives in danger?
- How much research should I do to dig into a company's sordid history?
The automotive industry isn't the only place where customers faced ethical dilemmas like this one in 2015. This post looks at a few more. It also asks whether customers really care.
The Uber Dilemma
People love Uber. Not just like. Love.
Many people I know absolutely swear by the ride-sharing app as an alternative to taxis. I have one friend who literally mentions Uber every time I see her. If Uber was a person, I think she'd marry it.
Several scandals have done little to dampen their amore. Uber has been accused of requiring inadequate insurance coverage for it's drivers. They're facing a lawsuit over performing inconsistent background checks.
The biggest one of them all is a class action lawsuit that alleges Uber drivers should really be Uber employees and not independent contractors. Uber can avoid the substantial cost of employment taxes and benefits if its drivers remain contractors.
Uber has become popular because it's disrupting a traditional industry. The ethical dilemma is that it may be breaking the law and violating the rights of thousands of people to do it.
Many issues still need to be worked out in the courts and through legislation, but it's amazing how few people seem to care. Their feelings are captured nicely in this Huffington Post article where the author is against the latest Uber lawsuit solely because Uber is so convenient.
The Airbnb Dilemma
Airbnb is another disruptive company. They allow people to rent out their homes or even just a room to travelers.
Travelers love it because it's typically cheaper than a hotel and it allows them to stay in many interesting places. Homeowners love it because they can make some extra cash.
Many of these homeowners are operating in a legal gray area. Some are blatantly flouting local laws.
There are several issues that create ethical dilemmas for Airbnb hosts and their guests. One is that many Airbnb accommodations are not properly licensed for the type of rentals they're offering. Another issue is the company, or it's hosts, aren't always collecting and paying tourism taxes.
A woman in my hometown of San Diego was recently fined $15,000 after she continued to rent her home on Airbnb even after the city sent her a cease and desist notice.
Perhaps the biggest dilemma is the perceived impact on housing costs. In San Francisco, there's an ongoing debate over whether Airbnb is helping to drive up the cost of housing in an already hyper-inflated market.
Still, these issues don't seem to be swaying too many people away from using Airbnb. I have friends and relatives who swear by them and have stopped using hotels altogether.
Like Uber, many of these issues aren't fully resolved. And, I'm in no way suggesting that using Airbnb makes you evil. The part that interests me is how little Airbnb users seem to care about these controversies.
Blue Bell Rises Again
There was a sense of overwhelming sadness last April when Blue Bell stopped making ice cream.
It wasn't because three people had died due to ice cream contaminated with listeria. It also wasn't because the company knew about the listeria problem in 2013, or that it was slow to react to a growing epidemic. People were sad because the couldn't eat their beloved Blue Bell.
One of my friends in Texas (where Blue Bell is headquartered) posted a note on Facebook about the controversy back in August when it was announced that Blue Bell was going to resume production. She described the dilemma of supporting a company whose product was deeply ingrained in Texas culture versus that same company knowingly putting its customers in danger. There were quite a mix of responses, ranging from "I'll never eat Blue Bell again" to several people stating they're willing to take their chances.
No Easy Answers
These ethical dilemmas don't provide any easy answers.
Some of them are gray areas. From my time in the corporate world, I can also tell you that you'd be hard pressed to find a single company that doesn't violate the law in some way - either through negligence or intentional deceit. Sticking to your principles at all times can be lonely and inconvenient.
So, what's a customer to do?