Everything is Not Awesome? A Philosophical Assessment of LEGO

The Greenpeace video is very powerful and extremely persuasive, but what exactly was this campaign about? The video hints at many possible criticisms of LEGO’s relationship with Shell, and it’s worth thinking through the video in more detail to get clear about the precise criticism being raised, and whether it is legitimate. In particular, from an ethical standpoint, how should we think about LEGO’s relationship with Shell? And more generally, how should we think about a clean, green, and ethically upstanding toy company’s relationship to other, dirtier, morally questionable companies?

Taking the Greenpeace video at face value, the imagery constructs a compelling metaphor in which the big boss at Shell oil stands alone, solitary and powerful, triumphant (and triumphantly ignorant!) over his drilling station, which is slowly flooding the Arctic with oil and destroying everything in its wake. Of course, nobody thinks that is a good thing, and we don’t need a video to convince us.

However, we can find a different worry being articulated in the video’s words (rather than its images) at the very end, when the Shell flag emerges out of the blackness of the oil, alongside Greenpeace’s accusation: “Shell is polluting our kids’ imaginations.” What does this mean? One way of understanding this accusation is this: Greenpeace wants us to believe that when children play with LEGO toys with the Shell logo, LEGO pollutes our children’s imagination. But, if that’s the problem, then why aren’t they also targeting Exxon and Esso, whose product placement appeared in LEGO sets as early as 1979? Surely both brands pollute our children’s imagination equally, if they do so at all. And, it’s not particularly obvious that they do: does Shell really pollute our children’s minds by mere association with LEGO? That seems unlikely: how toys are made—whether it’s in a socially responsible way, or not—does not literally affect the minds of the children who play with those toys. Likewise, the so-called pollution by association with Shell also does not seem as if it would prevent LEGO toys from doing what they are meant to do, namely to support free play, imagination, and creativity. After all, even unwholesome and evil people engage in free play, imagination, and creativity (even if Lord Business can’t figure out how to do so). Whatever Greenpeace’s complaint is with Shell, it’s not about polluting children’s minds.

A more plausible way to articulate Greenpeace’s worry comes from the final plea in the video when Greenpeace commands us to “tell LEGO to end its partnership with Shell.” This makes sense—Shell’s attempts to drill in the Arctic were getting closer to being realized, and Greenpeace saw a strategic opportunity to leverage the LEGO name to criticize Shell.3 Greenpeace made the video to put pressure on Shell by raising awareness within the LEGO community about LEGO’s connections with Shell. Greenpeace’s video was extraordinarily successful in targeting Shell via the LEGO community. The video went viral immediately, causing a massive uproar within the LEGO community and beyond. Indeed, within three months of the video’s release in July 2014, LEGO agreed not to renew its contract with Shell.

All’s well that ends well, right? Not exactly. Although LEGO agreed not to renew its contract with Shell, LEGO did honor the final years of its already existing contract. Still, the renewal would have seen $116 million U.S. dollars’ worth of Shell-branded LEGO products at Shell gas stations around the world. But that’s neither here nor there. The more lasting effects of the Greenpeace campaign are that it has heightened awareness amongst LEGO consumers regarding the morality of the LEGO brand and what LEGO stands for.

The philosophical challenge is to consider whether it is ethically problematic for LEGO to be connected to companies like Shell, and if so, why. How should LEGO fans respond when a seemingly clean, green, and wholesome company like LEGO is financially involved with Shell, a company whose activities are in direct opposition to everything that LEGO claims to stand for?

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