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American-style consumerism spreading, Werhane says

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

The world's remotest corners will come to seem increasingly less remote, as more and more of their inhabitants purchase Coca-Cola, watch "Dallas" and make detailed wish lists of Western products, according to one of several predictions for the next century by Patricia H. Werhane, Ruffin Professor of Business Ethics at Darden and senior fellow at the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics.

"We're creating the desire for consumption, but will improve quality of life all over the world," she said in a recent interview. "The downside is that expansion of the global economy means that cultural differences are disappearing," though some organizations are trying to halt that, she said.

Werhane also predicts that corporations will become increasingly more environmentally conscious, creating more recyclable products; cheap labor will remain abundant, limiting the improvement of working conditions worldwide; and more and more species of plants and animals will become extinct.

"English will become the primary language," she said, noting that American television is viewed worldwide, even in remote villages such as the one she visited last year in India, where she found people watching "Dallas."

"We've spread the idea that you've got to have a car around the world; people see it on television and think they have to have it," said Werhane, who has taught classes here, including a business ethics course required for first-year Darden students, since 1993.

In the West, we're not about to change our consumer lifestyles, she predicted, but the products we buy will be made so they're recyclable.

"I see corporations finally taking the environment seriously, seeing a sustainable approach as an advantage," she said. "There's a growing consensus, especially among certain chemical and oil companies, that one can't simply comply with some regulations. Several oil companies are finally investing real money in solar."

German law is giving automobile companies a push, she said, by requiring that all cars be made so that every piece is reusable by 2005. One German company has created a car that is 80 percent recyclable, and an American company is also working on the concept.

"Corporations can make money on that because they don't have to buy raw materials," she said, adding that electric cars should be widely available soon.

Werhane said she's not as optimistic about workplace issues such as flex-time and pay equity among diverse groups, that, she told her students 25 years ago, she expected would be resolved by the end of the century.

Though there have been improvements in working conditions worldwide, in terms of safety, fresh air, and shorter workdays, she doesn't "see us moving to more participatory management, or decreasing the disparity between the pay of CEOs and low-wage workers," particularly in the U.S., she said. She pointed out that, when Daimler-Benz bought Chrysler, the American executives were being paid five to 10 times as much as the German ones.

"As long as we can get low-wage labor, we'll use it until we can't get it," said Werhane, who is working on a book on ethical issues in employment. "A Mexican gets three times as much in a maquiladora on the border as a subsistence farmer," so many farmers are drawn to these low-wage factories.

Some such farmers, millions of whom eke out a living from small plots of land, are becoming small-scale entrepreneurs of products made from local materials, making their individual cultures more economically sustainable, with the help of some companies and nongovernmental organizations, she said.

"Unilever, a gigantic Dutch and British company, is doing microdevelopment in small villages in India to help people become entrepreneurs to develop their own indigenous products," she said.

The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh was started in 1972 by a Bangladeshi who realized that poor women's home businesses could benefit greatly from loans of even $20. The bank currently has over a thousand branches and 2 million clients, lending out $30 million to $40 million a month, but only to clients who own no property.

Werhane said U.S. banks, such as South Shore Bank in Chicago, are starting to copy this microdevelopment model, in response to pressure by consumers, and she expects they will be much more common by 2100.

But can these banks and organizations stem the corporate tide that's replacing distinct cultures with American-style consumerism? Werhane sounds doubtful: "Unfortunately, we have become the bellwether."


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