Thursday, April 19, 2012

Who will be the business ethics winners and losers at the London Olympics?

Corporate involvement in the Olympic Games continues to expand in size and significance. This year, the 2012 London Olympics will boast sponsorship on hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate sponsorship and tie-ins. But as the corporate money flooding into the Games increases, so too do the attendant ethical risks. For all the advantages of being associated with one of the world's greatest and most watched sporting events, it also puts you at the mercy of activists and other critics ready to use the Games' huge pulling power to target big brands. Adidas, BP, Dow Chemical, McDonald's and Rio Tinto are all currently in the firing line regarding their involvement in the London Games. So the big question for the companies is: come closing ceremony time, who are going to be seen as the ethics winners and who will be the ethics losers?

 Four years ago, the 2008 Beijing Olympics also brought to the fore some major ethical risks for the Games' sponsors, mainly because of the potential for being tarnished with the human rights and environmental pollution problems facing hosts China. This time around, it is less the hosts than the companies themselves, accused of anything from using their sponsorship to greenwash their more unsavory practices (BP, Dow), to corrupting the ideals of the Games (McDonald's), and exploiting sweatshop labor to produce official Games sportswear (adidas).

The most tangible of these criticisms regards the sweatshop allegations. Over the years, adidas has worked hard on its ethical supply chain practices, and was one of the forces behind the Sustainable Apparel Coalition initiative. But having already dropped off one list of the most ethical companies this year, the accusations of poor labor practice in the factories producing the official kit for the Great Britain Olympic team will no doubt strike a significant reputational blow to the company.

Let's be clear here. It's unlikely that adidas is actually an outlier amongst apparel companies. A decent investigation into pretty much any global brand's supply chain could probably surface some major failures to live up to their impressive sounding codes. Not because they don't want to meet their commitments, but because there are always going to be suppliers that cut corners given the low cost, high flexibility model of production foisted onto them by the big brands. Adidas becomes a useful target though because of it's high profile in the Olympics. That's the risk that comes with the territory these days. Nike got it right 4 years ago when they published their special report on their Chinese operations months before the Olympics took place thereby taking any sting out of any likely exposé.

As for the so-called green washers, they also shouldn't be too surprised about the controversy they have sparked. BP as an official "sustainability partner" for the Olympics? Wouldn't it make sense to get your sustainability reputation back before wrapping yourself in such a cloak? Maybe they think that at rock bottom the only way you can go is up. But public trust needs careful nurturing if you are going to restore it after a major catastrophe. Not symbolic gestures.

If anybody should know how hard it is to rebuild public trust, it's one of the other Olympics sponsors currently in at the losing end of the PR battle, Dow Chemical. The beef with Dow goes back to 1984, and to a company that they didn't even acquire until 2001, Union Carbide. That the compensation question for Union Carbide's role in the Bhopal tragedy should still be rumbling on is testament to the importance of dealing effectively with legacy ethics issues. Here we are nearly 30 years later with Dow's banner role in the Games being the subject of front page news in India, the UK and elsewhere.

There's already been a high profile resignation from the watchdog supposed to monitor the sustainability of the 2012 Games as a result of the company's sponsorship deal, whilst over in India, the Government itself has now launched a diplomatic offensive against the company after it failed to persuade the London Olympics Committee to drop the firm as a sponsor. There has even been talk of a national boycott of the Games by India, but this currently looks unlikely. 

Let's get this one clear too though. Dow is no evil corporate monster, and has been doing some fine work in the sustainability space. But it does have a legacy problem still to deal with. And until it reaches a more easy relationship with key opinion formers in India (which, frankly seems unlikely in the near future given all that has happened ..... and when the response of the CEO to the current troubles is that any opposition to their sponsorship is "beyond belief"), it should just steer clear of huge global events like the Olympics. Any PR firm worth it's salt should know that. The $10m sponsorship money could have been spent in much more effective ways. Why take the risk of stirring up old problems - and more than that, give them a global airing - when you don't need to? Hubris, insensitivity, poor research, or just bad PR? It would be interesting to find out.

The bottom line is that the Olympics offers great opportunities for corporations to connect with a global audience. But those opportunities do not come risk free. Companies need to have their reputations in their best possible condition before they take such a plunge. And they need to have the PR department, the CSR team, risk management, and the senior leadership working together from the get go to minimize any damage.  Just ask any Olympic athlete. Winning at the Games is all about preparation, dedication, commitment, and having the right team in place to get you there. Business should be no different.

Photo by the|G|™. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence

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