David Brown
runs Word Of Mouth Ltd, a language consultancy
working with politicians and the media. He also works
as a journalist, recently covering stories in Azerbaijan
and Georgia. He has lived in Finland for seven years.

Browsing the websites of Finland’s finest companies, one gets the impression that they all respect the environment, care deeply about human rights and generally spend a lot of time helping old ladies cross roads and assisting kittens out of trees. What surprises me about these clean, green images is not that companies are adapting themselves to a changing and more aware trading environment, but that they put so little effort into even pretending that the claims are true.

One of the two major supermarket chains claims to be committed to Fair Trade products. And yet my local outlet stocks 40 different kinds of juice – not one of which is Fair Trade. The competing chain stocks 80 different kinds of juice – of which a single one is Fair Trade. If that is commitment, I can’t imagine what indifference looks like.

Both companies have also made warm, fuzzy statements about organic products. Strange, given that neither company has ever stocked a single item of organic meat, for example. No surprise then, that organic milk has only 1 per cent market share in Finland – but has 30 times that in Denmark, where both producers and retailers recognise the direction the market is going in.

The problem extends far beyond retail. Our largest confectionary brand waxes lyrical about its corporate ethics, while staying well clear of any programme that might actually back that up. Despite multi-million euro profits and years of experience in the Third World, the company seems to shy away from any of the myriad development programmes on offer in the countries it sources products from.

But surely none of these can compete with the audacity of the company who are currently marketing their coal-fired power station by describing it as “eco-efficient”, which is surely about as accurate as labelling sharks as life saving devices.

Of all the Finnish companies in a position to walk the talk of their websites, only forestry companies seem to have stepped up to the plate. The infamous Botnia mill in Uruguay genuinely does utilise the latest environmental technologies, and the company has actually developed the parks, roads and local schools it said it would. The irony here being that they did so in the face of raucous and prolonged Argentine protests. Which raises the question – would companies ever act if there were no protests from consumers?

More companies are forced into
change than choose it voluntarily.

It would be nice to think that companies would commit to corporate ethics because it befits them to do so – but the reality seems to be that more companies are forced into change than choose it voluntarily. In many cases, protestors actually push companies into business practices which will ultimately reinforce the companies’ bottom line. We all know that organic and Fair Trade products cost a little more because they are premium, value-added products. Which should mean that producers of fruit, grain or dairy products would be falling over themselves to exploit the high end of the market, but the reality seems to be otherwise. Instead, conservatism and a lack of competition mean few companies act before the market actually tells them to. This may be one of those rare cases where by protesting against the way companies operate, we can also shove them in the direction they should have been heading towards to begin with.

David Brown