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The Observer: Big Mac tops 'unethical' poll: Perceived least ethical firms: 3. Shell

Big Mac tops 'unethical' poll

McDonald's beats Nike to unwelcome accolade in new survey that reveals UK consumers' concerns about the things they buy

Conal Walsh
Sunday April 16, 2006
The Observer

British consumers believe that McDonald's is the least ethical of high-profile corporations, according to a new survey.

The unwanted accolade follows sustained criticism of the burger giant's unhealthy fare and provides further evidence that McDonald's – for years the most successful retail brand in the world – is increasingly out of step with a body-conscious society.

McDonald's tops the poll ahead of other 'bogeyman' companies such as Shell and Nestle, according to the Ethical Index compiled by market research firm The Fraser Consultancy. Based on a survey of more than 1,300 consumers, it is the first to rank UK and overseas brands according to their 'ethical profile'.

McDonald's has suffered dreadful PR in recent years, thanks in part to the hit documentary Super Size Me, which chronicled its presenter's decline into ill-health after a sustained diet of burgers and fries.

The fast food chain has been accused by health campaigners in America and Europe of helping to cause an obesity epidemic. It strongly denies the charge and has made strenuous efforts to revamp its menu along healthier lines, with only limited success; in Britain, McDonald's recently announced it was closing 25 restaurants.

Other companies to feature in the 'least ethical' top 10 include oil giants Shell and BP, which are often criticised by environmentalists; footwear company Nike, whose suppliers in Asia were accused of using child labour; Nestle, whose sale of powdered milk in the developing world sparked a furore more than a decade ago; and – more surprisingly – Camelot, the lottery operator.

The findings come despite efforts by many of these companies to embrace new codes of practice and 'ethical trading', and suggest that old controversies linger in consumers' minds for many years.

American Express also features in the top 10, although Karen Fraser, head of The Fraser Consultancy, said consumers had taken note of its new Red card, fronted by rock star Bono, which funnels donations to Aids charities in Africa.

The research also suggests consumers distrust the advertising and marketing of all of the high street banks except the Co-operative Bank. Most people questioned in the survey rated Tesco and the other leading supermarket chains as having 'neither good nor bad ethics'.

'People are thinking before they shop with a company,' said Fraser. 'At the moment a large proportion of consumers feel conflicted: they have ethical concerns about certain companies, but still buy their products. If alternatives that are seen as more ethical become available, though, many of these companies will be vulnerable.'

Fraser's research also reveals that corporate social responsibility issues are taken seriously by readers of The Observer more often than by those of any other newspaper.

According to the findings, 80 per cent of Observer readers have discussed the ethical conduct of companies in the past month. Readers of the Guardian, The Observer's sister paper, come second in the poll, with 75 per cent discussing business ethics; the figure for the Financial Times, in third place, is 72 per cent.

The survey coincides with the Observer Ethical Awards, launched in February in association with Ecover, which have so far polled thousands of votes across six categories. These range from Ethical Retailer of the Year to Innovation of the Year, are nominated by readers, and will be adjudicated by a panel of experts and celebrities. The winners will be announced in June.

Perceived least ethical firms

1. McDonald's

2. Nike

3. Shell

4. Adidas

5. Barclays Bank

6. Coca-Cola

7. BP

8. Camelot

9. American Express

10. Nestle

Source: The Fraser Consultancy

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