What is social responsibility?

February 16, 2011 | By More

中文

News of a girl with a permanent scar on her tummy caught my attention.

Anosa Slimming Patch

The product, Anosa Slimming Patch, promises to reduce fat in target areas of the body where the patch is placed.  The advertising assures the user it is “safe”, and “loosens cellulite by penetrating deep heat”.  All she got was a permanent rectangular shaped scar on her tummy after using the patches for a month. She has regretted using quick-fix solutions and was quoted as saying “Nobody believes it is going to happen to you, but it will. It is really better to be safe than sorry.”

That got me thinking.  Didn’t the manufacturer test the patches before marketing it? Or did they do insufficient tests? Or is the unfortunate girl one of the rare cases of super sensitive skin? So what is the responsibility of the manufacturer? And if you are the owner of the company, what is your responsibility to your customers?

Parents & toddlers who consumed tainted milk at a hospital in Hangzhou

And then I did some checking.

In 2008, over 860 babies were hospitalised with 13 dead in People’s Republic of China as a result of drinking milk that had been mixed with melamine, a chemical used to manufacture hard plastic plates and utensils, countertops, dry erase boards, etc. It was added to watered down milk so that the milk will seem to have a higher protein content. In other words, to make more money.

It was found that Hebei farmers had known about this technique for at least 2 years as a way of making more money to cover the increased costs of feed for their cows. In addition, the distributors and manufacturers had also compromised the testing at their milk collecting stations around the country. In all, an estimated 300,000 victims were affected by the tainted milk.

Farmers pouring away milk at collection point in Hubei Province

Could this have been prevented if the farmers knew the dangers? What about the distributors? Apparently the people at the collecting stations had told the poor farmers it was ‘protein powder’ with a total of 22 companies involved in this scandal. You can read more about this at Wikipedia. And news about the court case here.

Food contamination problem is also rampant in the world’s most powerful democracy. In the same year as China’s tainted milk scandal, many cases were also found in the USA.

In 2008 between April and Aug 1,800 people were ill in 43 states due to salmonela suspected in tomatoes. Salmonela is the name given to a group of bacteria spread through feces of animals or humans.

Later in 2008 peanut butter was found to contain another strain of salmonela affecting 714 people and causing 9 deaths. Investigation later showed the factory producing the peanut butter to be ‘unsanitary’.

In March 2009 salmonela was detected in the pistachio processing plant of the second largest producer in the USA. Later in June 2009, cookie dough was found with with E.Coli, bacteria found in intestines of cattle. At least 69 people in 29 states were ill as a result. In 2010 E.Coli was found and 8,500 pounds of beef was recalled. The list continues.  How does “shit” turn up in food processing plants, you may ask? Good question. Can it be merely a result of one pair of unwashed hands after visiting the toilet?

Bhopal aerial view 1984

The world’s worst industrial disaster happened in 1984 when deadly methyl isocyanate gas leaked at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India killed about 3,000 nearby residents and an additional 8,000 within weeks of the incident. In all, about 500,000 suffered injuries as a result. More than 120,000 still suffer from ailments resulting from this accident.  Investigations afterward concluded multiple causes ranging from lack of maintenance, failure of safety systems which were switched off and storing dangerous chemicals beyond recommended levels. Read more about what happened here. Is this more management negligence driven by profit or merely ignorance?

So I wondered: who is responsible for these situations?  Why do these tragedies happen?

Bhopal victims lying in the street the morning after

Is it because the government did not have enough regulations or the health agencies did not do their jobs?  Will stricter regulations prevent it?

Perhaps it is ignorance – the farmers did not know melamine is not safe to eat, or the factory manager did not know where the tomatoes came from. Or perhaps it is negligence – the managers at Bhopal ignored certain safety rules or the milk inspectors in China not doing their jobs.

Ultimately, it is the senior executives and managers of companies who are responsible for ensuring their products are useful and safe. They have to put procedures in place and ensure their employees adhere to them. Regulatory agencies can only issue minimum requirements and cannot take into account all possibilities.

Social responsibility at the very minimum means making making sure your product and the process of producing it does not endanger the people using them, or in the case of Bhopal, endanger the nearby community. It begins at the top, as entrepreneurs and executives, and need to permeate through your team to engender the right level of responsibility from the start.

Ignorance cannot be an excuse since you are recommending the product to be bought. Perhaps then fewer people will have permanent rectangular patches on their tummies! …and more babies will still be alive today.

Defendants from milk factory in court in Hebei Province. 2 were executed, 1 suspended death penalty, 3 given life imprisonment, 2 received 15-year jail and 7 govt officials fired.

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Category: Social Responsibility, Viewpoints

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About the Author ()

EngTong, pioneer and innovator. Graduated from Imperial College London with an MBA from Cranfield School of Management. Lived in Scotland, England, California, Beijing and led teams in Italy, France, Japan, Taiwan and Malaysia to do the impossible. Now based in Singapore and believes the future is to blend the sophistication of western management practices with the strength of Asian Values. Trained as a Chartered Engineer. Member of IET, Associate of City and Guilds and a certified SixSigma Champion.

Comments (2)

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  1. A Arthur Lau says:

    This post will remind entrepreneurs not to put profit above social responsibility, whereby entrepreneurs generate a healthy bottom line for himself/herself at the expense and inimical health of the masses. You made an excellent co-relation of various events happening round the world. Thanks, Engtong

    • Error: Unable to create directory uploads/2017/06. Is its parent directory writable by the server? ET says:

      Thank you for your comments.