‘If slaughterhouses had glass walls, the whole world would be vegetarian’
- Linda McCartney
For many years I was a daily consumer of the popular mouthwash Listerine. Then, on 11th January 2009 the following story was widely reported across Australia’s mainstream media:[i]
Australia’s top-selling mouthwashes can cause oral cancer and should be pulled from supermarket shelves immediately.
Leading independent experts have issued this strong warning after investigating latest scientific evidence linking alcohol-containing mouthwashes to the deadly disease. Their review, published in the Dental Journal of Australia, concludes there is now “sufficient evidence” that “alcohol-containing mouthwashes contribute to the increased risk of development of oral cancer”.
Co-author Dr Camile Farah, director of research at the University of Queensland’s School of Dentistry, recommended mouthwash be restricted to “short-term” medical use or replaced by alcohol-free versions.
In response to the controversy that followed, and amidst claims that Australian sales had dropped by 50%[ii], the parent company, Johnson & Johnson, launched Listerine Zero, an alcohol-free variant later that year. But for this consumer the damage had already been done.
I have not purchased or used any Listerine products since. Still, at least Listerine remains on the market, unlike Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World.
What exposes these silent epidemics?
Transparency is the key! What darkness and secrecy conceal, transparency reveals. The public need to become aware of the issue. The issue needs a voice or a platform; it needs to be aired.
In today’s age of transparency, opportunities to suppress information or behaviour from the public are shrinking, and organisations would be well advised to take a proactive approach to addressing their “areas of vulnerability” before they are inevitably exposed. As they should, given these practices represent the company’s soft underbelly.
Taking a leading position brings with it the following benefits:
- It allows you to remain in control of your own destiny (offensive innovation) rather than being responsive to public outcry, regulatory enforcement, or the strategic shifts of competitors (defensive innovation)
- It de-positions competitors with similar practices who will be forced to defend their practices and follow suit
To do otherwise is to play a form of Russian roulette with your organisation’s future.
How do you detect these silent epidemics?
Often these types of silent epidemics exist within the organisation or industry itself. As such, their detection requires a high level of honest introspection. Ask yourself:
Which of our business practices are the public unaware of, but if they were, it would alter their perception of who we are and what we do?
This question should be asked of all aspects of the business; from the sourcing of raw materials through to disposal of the end product. However, the real challenge is not in asking this question but in answering it. Confronting internal inconvenient truths requires a level of honesty that many companies struggle with. After all, this is what we’ve always done; this is how we make a dollar; and besides, what the public don’t know won’t hurt them, right? It also takes courage to point out potential areas of vulnerability since you run the risk of offending those in charge by presenting a viewpoint they are unlikely to share.
Organisational heretics are rarely rewarded with instant gratitude!
[i] Weaver, C (2009) ‘Mouthwash linked to cancer’, The Sunday Telegraph, www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/nsw/mouthwash-linked-to-cancer/story-e6freuzi-1111118530255, accessed 23rd April 2014
[ii] Holroyd, J (2011) ‘Listerine cancer claim triggers court battle’, The Sydney Morning Herald, August 29th 2011, www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/beauty/listerine-cancer-claim-triggers-court-battle-20110829-1jh63.html, accessed June 4th 2014