CVS’s announcement on Wednesday that it will stop selling cigarettes and other tobacco products has drawn lot of praise. Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, called the decision “an unprecedented step in the retail industry.” President Obama issued a statement saying that CVS had set a “powerful example.” We think CVS deserves kudos, too; its decision could help in the fight against smoking. But we also like the decision because of what it says about the value of responsible business practices.
Skepticism about factoring ethics into business often comes in one of two varieties. One source of doubt comes from within the business community itself. Many companies are too quick to assume that taking an ethical course will put their business at a disadvantage. Companies fear that if they stop polluting, raise wages, or eliminate unethical products, then that could hurt their bottom line. Another group of skeptics comes mostly from outside the business world. This group is more ready to admit that companies can do well by acting responsibly, or appearing to. They just doubt that ethical business practices help the world as much as businesses say.
These concerns can’t all be wished away. It’s true that pollution control technology can increase business costs. And it’s true that not every company trumpeting its ethical commitments makes a significant positive difference. Some companies engage in “greenwashing.” And in some circumstances – such as with the Kimberley Process (KP), the international diamond certification scheme – industry efforts can backfire by perpetuating low standards and reducing momentum for change. Still, CVS’s move is a great example of how, very often, responsible business practices really can help and some of these concerns can be put to rest.
Let’s start with the business case for dropping cigarettes from CVS. The decision, slated to go into effect October 1, seems puzzling at first. CVS sells $2 billion worth of tobacco products every year. Why would a corporation give up all that revenue?
It may sound naïve, but I imagine that CVS executives thought a good deal about the ethics involved. CVS’s leaders, like everyone else, are people with consciences. It must have felt good for them to stop selling an unhealthy product like cigarettes. But business factors, of course, must have played a role as well. Many CVS pharmacies now have health clinics on site and offer health advice. The decision could open up new business opportunities for CVS; this spring, for example, CVS plans to create a smoking cessation program. The decision also builds CVS’s brand as an ethical company and, specifically, as one that is invested in improving health. By not selling cigarettes, CVS eliminates a major contradiction in its identity and mission. It will no longer be a health care provider selling a product that causes heart disease and cancer.
OK, so the decision might be a net wash for CVS’s bottom line, or even boost its profits, but what about society? Although most of CVS’s customers will probably just buy cigarettes elsewhere, it’s possible that some people will smoke less, or that some young people with a CVS near their home or school will never smoke that first cigarette that gets them hooked. CVS’s new smoking cessation program may also do some good. Most importantly, CVS may set an example that competitors feel obliged to follow. Already, Walgreens is said to be considering whether to stop tobacco sales too. The ripple effects could be quite large if cigarettes become harder to buy.
As a pharmacy with 7,600 retail locations, CVS is a much different business than Brilliant Earth, an online jeweler. Its example, nevertheless, is encouraging. CVS’s decision demonstrates how businesses can succeed by removing ethical inconsistencies. At Brilliant Earth, we are working to help the same principle catch on in the jewelry industry, where jewelers continue to sell symbols of love—wedding and engagement rings—tainted by violence and abuse. In our case, it may not be as easy as making a single press announcement or eliminating an item in our inventory. But we believe that gradually, by demonstrating that ethical sourcing and more transparency make solid business sense, we can change our industry and make a difference.