The ethics of "ethical oil"

With rhetorical games, oilsands backers are hindering an important debate.

Branding should be useful, not just for companies but for consumers. It should help consumers get products they want, and avoid those they don’t. That is, brands serve an important moral function. They can help make commerce the mutually beneficial process it should be.

But when a company or industry appropriates the term “ethics” as part of its branding, the result is a reduction in clarity for consumers, making them worse off rather than better.One example is the recent trend toward designating organic, locally grown, free-range foodstuffs as “ethical food.” The implication is that life is simple and that the conscientious consumer’s choices are simple.

Would that it were the case.

Branding the product of Canada’s oilsands as “ethical oil”—differentiating it from purportedly unethical Saudi Arabian oil—makes the same mistake. It muddies the water, impoverishing the information-conveying function of the market. And if there’s any market where that matters, it’s energy. The global community needs to have a vigorous, ongoing debate about the ethics of energy. There are no simple solutions. We should be developing new technologies while working to make existing technologies more efficient and more ecologically sustainable. It’s complicated stuff. What each consumer, business and government should do in the meantime is ask a hard ethical question, and not one that can be answered by slapping on a label.

The critique of Saudi oil isn’t without merit. Saudi standards for the treatment of women are indefensible. But the “ethical” claim for the oilsands is a serious stretch—at least if it’s supposed to point to a clear difference in moral status.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether anyone will take the term seriously, anyway. The group behind the “ethical oil” play can’t really expect the rest of us to start using the term to differentiate Canadian from other oil. This is rhetoric, not ethics—and that fact might make many of us inclined to shrug off the whole story. But it shouldn’t. Words matter. And you don’t have to take a side on the use of oilsands in general to regret an attempt to hinder, rather than foster, public clarity about an important issue.