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Ethics and Personal Care

By: Steve Herman
Posted: August 11, 2009, from the August 2009 issue of GCI Magazine.

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The Tuskegee experiment led to the Belmont Report in 1979,4 (see Belmont Report), which became the basis of all subsequent standards regarding testing on humans. The Department of Health and Human Services now has a “Common Rule” in its Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP) that legally codifies the issues and guidelines.5 The cosmetic literature, however, is not rich in ethical reviews, the Carson and Holt study in the Journal of Cosmetic Science being a rare exception.6–7

One example of an ethical issue in the beauty industry centers on antimicrobial products. The FDA has ruled that soap and water are equally effective as antimicrobial products, and, further, these products may lead to the emergence of dangerous superbugs such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. In this case, the desire for antimicrobial products is determined more by culture than by health and biological well-being. Does industry have a responsibility to change the values that lead consumers to overuse antimicrobial products? This is an issue that philosopher Kenneth A. Richman has been using in his talks and writings.8

An Ethical Infusion

Ethics infuse every business and scientific activity—from accepting a gift to massaging some test data to support a desired result. Every time a salesman is hired with the implicit or explicit understanding of “moving” business, or a chemist is hired who is intimately acquainted with a competitor’s proprietary information, the boundaries of ethical behavior can be stretched. Nondisclosure agreements, employment contracts with noncompete clauses and companies operating with a need-to-know approach all recognize the necessity that ethical behavior must be reinforced by legal documents and operational precautions.

Many companies have codified their ethical codes or codes of conduct to cover a broad range of concerns. L’Oréal, Avon and The Estée Lauder Companies—to name just a few obvious industry leaders—have all made their ethical guidelines available online, some in multiple languages.9 The guidelines are similar from company to company, indicating the existence of a strong consensus on what constitutes ethical behavior.

Ethics has even become a major trend in MBA programs since the financial meltdown. The New York Times reports: “When a new crop of future business leaders graduates from the Harvard Business School next week, many of them will be taking a new oath that says, in effect, greed is not good. Nearly 20 percent of the graduating class have signed ‘The MBA Oath,’ a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to ‘serve the greater good.’ It promises that Harvard MBAs will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their ‘own narrow ambitions’ at the expense of others.”10