China Just Picked A Fight With Another Foreign Brand: J&J

johnson & johnson baby shampoo

Criticism of foreign enterprises in China really does seem to be a trend these days, and it’s not just Wal-Mart. The latest media campaign is against Johnson & Johnson. Reuters has the background:

China said on Monday Johnson & Johnson should “practise morality”, a week after the U.S. consumer and healthcare group was accused of continuing to sell baby shampoo with a possible cancer-causing ingredient.

“Abiding by laws and regulations is the minimum compliance,” said a signed commentary on state-run news agency Xinhua on Monday, adding: “Responsible businesses should have ‘moral blood’ flowing in their veins.

“Enterprises should fulfil their social responsibilities, and are not only bound to obey laws and regulations but must also practise morality and self-discipline.” Such commentaries are tantamount to official government positions.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics said last week J&J used the preservative quaternium-15 in Johnson’s Baby Shampoo in the United States and elsewhere. Quaternium-15 is added to many cosmetic products to prevent spoiling and contamination, and works by releasing formaldehyde to kill bacteria.

Formaldehyde can cause cancer, according to the U.S. Department of Health, although exposure to it is common as it is widely used in consumer products and traces of it exist in the air, particularly inside homes.

“If you conduct a market survey, it is obviously very difficult to find consumers who could accept products containing carcinogens,” the Xinhua commentary said.

Right. This is interesting for two reasons. First, it’s a good example of what I like to call the globalization of dirty laundry. It appears as though this campaign began with a U.S.-based health advocacy organisation, and then the story was picked up by the media here in China, which may have its own agenda for doing so (see below).

The point is that multinationals can’t hide anymore. Whether it’s the parts in your widgets or the ingredients in the food you sell, everyone everywhere knows about it and will compare notes with their counterparts in other nations. Transparency is a good thing, but I would guess that it also gives corporate communications folks gigantic migraines on a regular basis.

The second, even more fun topic, concerns (once again) foreign companies in China and public criticism. I keep speculating about the current environment and wondering whether it’s fundamentally different from any other time. Foreign firms have always had a tough time here with respect to media treatment, so it’s very difficult to tell if anything is really going on. That’s been the big question in the posts I’ve written on Wal-Mart’s problems in Chongqing, and more recently Dalian.

For J&J, the question is similar. Is this really such a big story that it deserves such treatment from journos here in China? We’ve got a carcinogen (lots of those about) in baby shampoo, but in amounts that are legal in most places, including China. So no laws have been broken. So what’s the angle here?

As the above quote shows, the argument is that J&J should do more than just follow the law. This is essentially an appeal for a strong Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program, which would be fine if it was coming from an advocacy organisation, an NGO, the UN, or even Bill freakin’ Gates (wearing his philanthropy hat, of course).

But coming from Xinhua? When so many companies here are found, on a regular basis, to be criminally liable for their misdeeds? Calling out a company for not doing more than the law requires? Wow, that is really over the top.

Ordinarily, to be fair, I’d chalk this up to the usual paranoia regarding anything involving children. But the whole CSR angle is too much for me, and I gotta call bullshit. Look, I understand if the media either thinks that: a) criticism of foreign firms sells papers; or b) the government wants them to rail against MNCs. However, they should at least stick with companies that are actually breaking the rules.

I wonder who will be next?


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