There are many ways you can learn about ethical issues in business. You can do some reading. You can take a course. But, hey, it’s summer, so let’s talk movies. Here’s a list of my five favourite documentaries on business ethics. Granted, docs aren’t exactly great date movies, but trust me, you could do a lot worse. So grab a bag of popcorn. In no particular order:
Let’s start with one you’ve likely heard of, The Corporation (2003). It was popular out of all proportion to either educational or entertainment quality. It’s full of half-truths and bizarre omissions. And its central theme, that the corporation is in some sense a psychopath, simply cannot withstand even cursory critical examination. But it’s still useful to watch—if only to understand the source and shape of so much anti-capitalist sentiment. (The Corporation is freely available online here.)
Next on my list is another of what might be called an ‘anti-business’ documentary, Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005). This is one of my favourite videos for classroom use because it’s a good test of students’ critical thinking skills. Some of the criticisms levelled at Walmart in the movie are entirely on-target: labour code violations, racist HR practices, etc. Other criticisms point to things that are in some sense sad—the loss of so many mom-and-pop stores, for example—but far from evil. Still others are downright ludicrous, such as blaming Walmart for random murders in its parking lots. Watching this one is a great way to see what is right, and what is wrong, with so many criticisms of business today.
The most recent of my top five is already a couple of years old. And while Food, Inc. isn’t about business per se, it’s about the production of food, something that is increasingly industrialized and dominated by big business. And as businesses go, none could be more important to us than the food business. The film does a good job of pointing out problems, but is regrettably short on solutions. A not-unrelated criticism is that the doc makes too little use of relevant experts. How could a film make concrete recommendations about the future of food without bothering to interview, say, a food economist or two? At any rate, it’s a thought-provoking hour and a half.
Another doc you probably haven’t heard of is called The Take (2004). This one isn’t really a criticism of any particular company, or of any particular industry. At heart, it’s a plea for a different economic model—though the details here are a bit vague. The Take tells the true story of a group of Argentinian factory workers who, when their cruel capitalist boss shut down operations for obscure reasons, seize the factory, start up the machines, and try to make a go of it. The workers’ motto—“Occupy, Resist, Produce”—is in spirit awfully close to “Workers of the world, unite!” It’s a good story. Unfortunately, the movie ends before the story does. As the film closes, the workers have seized the factory and started up the machines, full of optimism that they can do better without a boss. Can they really do it? Can their little workers’ paradise beat the odds? The Take leaves us with lots of idealistic hopes, but few answers.
My next recommendation is admittedly the dullest of the bunch, but still worth considering. A Decent Factory (2005) is a story about audits. Not financial audits, but supply-chain audits carried out by Nokia at the factories of one of its Chinese subcontractors. This quiet film is striking in two respects. The first is how the auditors seem to struggle with just how much to push their Chinese subcontractors on various issues. The auditors’ job is not an easy one. They are there to evaluate, but also to insist on improvements, or sometimes just to suggest, encourage, and cajole. The path forward is far from clear. This is related to the second striking aspect of the film, which is that conditions at the Chinese factory are, well, mediocre. They’re not the kind of awful sweatshop that would make for a gripping exposé. Remember what your grade-school English teacher told you about the adjective “nice”? It’s a weak word, one that tells the reader little. That’s the sense in which the makers of this film use the word “decent” in their title. The Chinese factory is a … decent … factory. Not great. But not awful. And just what to think about that is left to the viewer.
Last but certainly not least is Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005). This one is arguably the best of the bunch. Based on the book by journalists Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, the movie is a fun, accessible, and best of all plausible telling of the story of what is still the biggest and most complex business-ethics scandal of the century so far. Perhaps what most attracts me to this doc is its refusal to resort to easy answers. There’s no attempt to say it was “all about greed” or that “capitalism is evil.” The truth about Enron, and about capitalism more generally, is much more complex, and much more interesting, than that.