Latin America and the Caribbean

StarTribune (Minneapolis)
3 May 1996

Desperate Kids, Ethical Challenges


For all the controversy H.B. Fuller has endured, no one has ever claimed that it set out to make a mood-altering drug that, as an unintended side effect, also repaired shoes. The stories of human tragedy that flow from the abuse of Fuller's products among the urchin populations of Latin America sometimes obscure this simple fact: Nobody at the St. Paul-based Fuller feels any sense of satisfaction when a boy on the street opens a jar of Resistol and inhales the only measure of happiness and respite that his day will bring.

But innocent motives alone don't solve the ethical problems that arise from the abuse of Fuller products in places like Guatemala and Nicaragua. And Fuller has shown over the years that it takes ethical issues seriously--both generally and in the matter of inhalant abuse. The firm has tried several approaches to stemming the problem, without success.

Fuller has concluded, in the words of executive Dick Johnson, that Resistol abuse is "a social problem. It's not a product problem." Defenders of the company's sale of Resistol point out that the desperate children of Latin America will always seek out the easiest, most available high in their relentless bid to escape--maybe a better word is shorten--lives dominated by hunger and cold. If not to Resistol, they say, kids will turn to something equally bad.

That rings of common sense. It shouldn't, however, be the end of the debate. The issue at hand is not the judgment of a poor Third World child but the ethical obligations of a First World corporation. Confronted with a harm in which one's product plays a part, and conceding that a harm not done by one firm will be done by another, it is still possible for a corporation to decide: Then let someone else do it; we won't be a part of it.

Fuller points to the good the firm has done and is doing in Latin America. It has helped small businesses survive. It has also changed the formula of Resistol to make its odor less attractive, and has worked to control packaging and pricing to make Resistol less convenient and more expensive. Most significant, Fuller is developing a water-based glue that may take over Resistol's function as an adhesive without duplicating its role as a drug.

The new, nontoxic alternative to Resistol is a powerful example of just how much good Fuller can do in Latin America. But until that substance has actually replaced Resistol in vendors' stalls and in shoe-repair shops, the ethical problem of Resistol will remain. One sensible solution that Fuller has steadfastly rejected is to add oil of mustard to the Resistol formula to discourage its use as an inhalant.

But there is another, better answer, one that wouldn't be financially out of the question for a firm as large as Fuller: a temporary withdrawal from the Latin American glue market. Sales of Resistol in the region account for less than 1 percent of Fuller's revenues. The firm is optimistic that the water-based alternative will perform well in tests now underway, so maybe the sacrifice would be short-lived.

Fuller has assumed an understandably defensive posture in the face of a wrongful-death suit filed on behalf of a Guatemalan family. Joel de Jesus Linares, 16, died in 1993, allegedly after abusing Resistol. His family's American lawyer is seeking to have the suit heard in the United States. The suit could be turned into a class action, meaning that Fuller might be exposed to huge losses.

No matter how the suit is resolved, legal liability is a narrow, technical issue compared with the question of a corporation's values and beliefs. Fuller should reconsider the moral questions involved in profiting--even unintentionally, even unwillingly--from the bad judgment of desperate children, and suspend sales of the substance they're using to ruin their lives.

Copyright 1996 StarTribune.
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