LEGO, Politics, and Values

These concerns are all part of a larger issue: examining the relation between one’s ideology and politics, on the one hand, and one’s status as a consumer of LEGO toys, on the other.

In the past, corporate values were usually treated as the private personal affair of the Board of Directors or CEO, but not relevant to the consumer. These days, however, consumers aren’t willing to put up with that attitude. We care a lot more about corporate responsibility— the responsibility of companies to produce, market, and distribute their products in an ethically responsible manner. Parents care especially about the corporate responsibility of the products they purchase for their children, which has resulted in a proliferation of environmentally friendly, consumer-conscious, ethically sound toy companies. Not to be left behind, LEGO has engineered an entire marketing strategy to present an image that embodies wholesome goodness. LEGO advertises itself as a lifestyle choice whose values include being part of a team that educates people, that does the right thing, and that prides itself on its wholesomeness. This image is rather different from the reality of LEGO as a for-profit company, however, as we shall see.

Consider, first, LEGO’s long-standing and problematic partnership with Shell. Shell, of course, is one of the world’s largest and most profitable oil companies. And, like any major oil company, Shell is (and has been for a while) enmeshed in ethically problematic relationships, not least its relationships with various repressive governments on which its access to crude oil often depends. A notable example is its long relationship (beginning in 1958) with the Nigerian government, particularly its murky role in the government’s brutal backlash against the Ogoni people and their non-violent campaign against Shell in the oil-rich Niger delta. The government’s military repression left some 2,000 Ogoni dead and 30,000 homeless, culminating in the hanging of nine protesters in 1995, including environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. In 2009, Shell agreed to pay $15.5 million to the Ogoni as part of a “humanitarian settlement,” in the face of compelling evidence that it had been complicit in the Nigerian government’s military repression. LEGO was undoubtedly aware of the Ogoni resistance campaign, which was notably supported by Greenpeace. Thus, one might think that LEGO had more than ample grounds to cut ties with Shell twenty years ago. However, in those pre-YouTube days, the Ogoni campaign never gained enough support or exposure to put sufficient pressure on LEGO to do so. No doubt this is an object lesson in the power of social media, but in terms of basic morality, it would be hard to deny that LEGO had at least as much reason to end its relationship with Shell twenty years ago as it does today.

Nor is everything awesome with LEGO’s labor practices, which have followed a fairly typical trajectory for a major multinational company over the past decade. In 2006, amid falling sales numbers, LEGO decided to cut its U.S. and Swiss production and massively scale back its production in its home country of Denmark, laying off thousands of well-paid workers in the process. At the same time, it outsourced production to plants in poorer countries such as Mexico and the Czech Republic, where wages are much lower and environmental regulations comparatively lax. These practices are morally problematic if being a socially responsible company includes demonstrating loyalty to the workers who contributed to the very success of the company to begin with.

Two years later, LEGO ended up taking back control of its production from its outsourcing company (Flextronic). This has become a textbook case study in the business literature with respect to whether outsourcing is always “worth it.” Largely overlooked, however, is the fact that even after ending the outsourcing arrangement, LEGO retained its manufacturing operations in the low-wage countries and never returned to its prior employment or production levels in the higher-wage areas it had abandoned. Although it is not hard to find companies with worse labor practices than LEGO, even LEGO’s practices serve as a useful reminder that in business “social responsibility” is always subservient to the bottom line.

Finally, consider the key aspect of LEGO’s social responsibility program, which centers around its stated commitment to the environment. This brings us back to the central issue raised by the Greenpeace video. LEGO made a public commitment to reducing carbon emissions at its production plants by 10 percent by the end of 2016, for which it deserves praise. Unfortunately, however, the actual manufacturing of LEGO components accounts for only 10 percent of the total emissions created in the production of LEGO, where this includes everything from extracting the necessary raw materials to bringing the finished product to market. The vast majority of harmful carbon emissions, about 90 percent, occur at various points along this supply chain.4 Thus, while LEGO’s commitment to reducing emissions at its own manufacturing plants is laudable, the relatively small percentage of the total emissions that this represents points up the reality that the problem is larger than any one company’s climate policy.5

These points highlight the ways in which the reality of LEGO as a multinational corporation is in tension with its image as a wholesome company that consumers can feel good about supporting. The money and effort spent on constructing and maintaining that image makes it easy to forget that in the end, LEGO is a company motivated by its financial bottom line. It also explains why the Greenpeace video was so threatening to LEGO and why it proved so effective: in just a few short months, the video threatened to undermine the wholesome image that LEGO spent decades developing at tremendous cost.

But does LEGO really believe that everything is awesome? We are not so sure. It may be that LEGO is more self-aware of its own ethically precarious position—perhaps we should be giving LEGO more credit than either its marketing agents or Greenpeace allow.

So far, we have considered two opposing conceptions of LEGO: the clean, green, pristine, perfect version of LEGO courtesy of LEGO’s marketing team at one end of the spectrum, and the environmentally dirty, hypocritical, and morally problematic version of LEGO portrayed in the Greenpeace video, at the other end. It would be too easy to end this chapter by taking a middle ground acknowledging that both sides are exaggerating. Perhaps the truth about LEGO’s complicated relationship to the oil industry’s dirty business is best appreciated by escaping to the LEGO fictional world.

In the LEGO fictional world, LEGO has always had an on-again, off-again relationship with all sorts of oil companies, including Shell. Shell has appeared in sets as early as the mid-1960s, and as late as 2014 (until the Greenpeace video). LEGO, however, was never exclusive with Shell—it also had relationships with Exxon and Esso since the late 1970s. LEGO dumped all “real” gas companies in 1992 after introducing its own fictional oil company, Octan. Octan was ethically upstanding and morally upright, serving as the major sponsor for sports teams in the LEGO fictional world (such as the Moose Jaw Octan Oilers of the LEGO Major Junior Hockey League), investing in renewable energy with its wind turbine in 2009 (set #7747), and even focusing more efforts on the renewable energy with an updated logo on its 2013 Tanker Truck (set #60016).6 This logo contains many stylistic elements that hint at the company going green: the logo includes the word “Energy” in a larger font than the word “Octan,” the logo is now entirely green, rather than its former red and green, and the logo now includes three leaves.

So, the truth in the fictional world is that LEGO was involved in the good (Octan) as well as the bad (Shell, Exxon, and Esso) intermittently. Yes, LEGO eventually did end its relationship with Shell (even if it held up the remainder of the last contract). But whether this was due to a desire to do the right thing or a desire to undo the damage to its reputation caused by the Greenpeace video is an open question.

This relationship is also muddied when we remember that President Business, the seemingly benevolent CEO of Octan, has Lord Business as his alter ego, the nefarious evil ruler who wants to destroy the world. Even worse, Lord Business cleverly uses the catchy “Everything is Awesome” pop song to brainwash his workers into blindly and happily following Lord Business’s orders and letting him rule the world through its catchy tune with doublespeak lyrics.7 Here, too, we see LEGO tacitly acknowledging its ambiguous relationship to the oil industry, the oil industry’s equivocal relationship to the world, and the ambivalent position that the CEOs of major companies have toward their consumers and toward the industry’s impact on the world itself, environmentally, socially, and economically. The dripping satire in the song’s lyrics reminds us that behind Lord Business’s seemingly good- natured encouragement to be positive and to buy overpriced coffee lies a parody critical of rampant consumerism and blind acceptance of corporate values.

The fictional world of LEGO suggests a more realistic image of LEGO than the real world! Yes, LEGO has had rather questionable ties to the oil industry—and it has had problematic social, political, and economic practices as well. These facts are nothing to be proud of, but LEGO is not alone in this. Nothing that has been said so far puts LEGO in an especially harsh light as compared to other for-profit companies. Indeed, it is not hard to find companies that are ethically (much) worse than LEGO in terms of their marketing, labor, or environmental practices. Whatever problems consumers might have with LEGO, it remains a much better company, ethically speaking, than most others.

Of course, those other for-profit companies don’t portray themselves in the ethically positive way that LEGO does, and very few for-profit companies enjoy the ethically positive public image that LEGO enjoys. As we have seen, LEGO markets itself as “not just another toy company,” an image that many consumers seem to accept as accurate. This raises the question: is LEGO hypocritical when it projects an ethically laudable vision all the while engaging in less-than- perfect practices? It’s a fair question whether a company that trades on such a positive image should, in turn, be held to a higher moral standard than a company that does not.

Although this is not a question that we can settle here, being held to a higher moral standard may well be a reasonable “cost” of profiting from an ethically positive image. But, if we are going to hold these companies to a higher standard, then we had better do so with our eyes open, recognizing that first and foremost, LEGO, like all toy companies, is a for-profit (privately held) company.

Even if we may be disappointed that LEGO’s practices may not have measured up to its image, we should still be supporting LEGO for taking the lead in developing its socially responsible ethos. Moreover, if we want to encourage other companies to develop greater environmental and social responsibility, then we should be calling out other toy companies that don’t even bother trying to have an environmentally and socially responsible approach. In this respect, LEGO has the chance to be a leader in the toy world: the first to construct a socially responsible ethos, and hopefully in the future, the first to be able to follow through in its practices as well.

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