Tesco has to no small extent staked its claim in the American market based on a reputational appeal. It wants to be seen as the company that always does the right thing. Thus it promotes its solar panels on the roof of the distribution center and promises to locate stores in underserved areas. It promises to provide ‘good jobs’ with health insurance and to keep its private label offerings free of transfats.
As Tesco prepares to open in the U.S.A., it can expect, of course, vigorous competition from U.S. competitors. It also can expect opposition from labor unions as Tesco is expected to fight unionization efforts.
Yet Tesco may wind up with opposition from an unexpected corner: animal rights activists and normal Americans simply horrified by practices that are acceptable in other countries.
Just this week in the United Kingdom, Care for the Wild International, handed out leaflets outside a lecture theater where Tesco’s CEO Sir Terry Leahy gave a speech. They were protesting the sales of live turtles in Tesco stores in China.
The protests are all over the web at sites such as this, which often contain gruesome videos that can make a western stomach turn.
Direct appeals have been made to the Tesco Board of Directors:
We write on behalf of our 3,500 UK members who will be shocked and sickened to learn that your Chinese operation is actively involved in inflicting some of the most extreme forms of animal cruelty imaginable. The level of suffering caused to turtles and frogs in Chinese markets is well documented. These animals are shipped and handled with no regard to their welfare and without any attempt to minimize their suffering.
They are maintained in-store under totally unacceptable conditions, and are killed in a grossly inhumane and barbaric fashion. These animals are essentially dissected alive. They have highly developed sensory capabilities, and without question suffer the most extreme pain and distress over an extended period.
It is frankly revolting that any UK company should be promoting this kind of thing.
Should such actions be repeated in the UK it would be a serious criminal offence for which you would undoubtedly be prosecuted. We can only presume that because you are committing these offences in China, you believe that it will escape the notice of your UK customers. We are determined to ensure that this is not the case. We are writing to all of our members to inform them of your direct involvement in this vile trade and to urge them to shop elsewhere….
Your company has sought to present a “green” image to UK consumers. You have also sought to promote a range of “ethical” and vegetarian products. Your corporate website states: “We will continue to promote high standards of animal welfare” and “We demand high standards of animal welfare”.
Your activities in China reveal these statements to be completely false. You are not promoting animal welfare; you are actively promoting the most obscene levels of cruelty. I would venture to suggest that no vegetarian or consumer who cares at all about the environment or about humane issues could with any conscience set one foot in your stores while you continue to be involved in this particularly horrific and destructive trade.
Tesco has tried to respond to these pleadings, and those responses have generally not been sufficient to satisfy the complaints.
To us the whole matter demonstrates the problematic nature of operating a global company. These companies will, almost inevitably, come to be seen as evil because their ethics, inevitably, will be situational.
In China, people seem to enjoy eating turtle. They like to see the live turtles and then have them decapitated. In the U.S. or the U.K., you could probably go to jail for violating cruelty to animal laws if you did the same thing.
So, Tesco or any other multinational is faced with a choice: Remain true to one’s homeland values, which means that one will be somewhat irrelevant in some markets, or adopt the views of every local market, which means the company doesn’t have values at all.
It is interesting to note that Wal-Mart, with its own Chinese operation, seems to have mostly avoided the controversy. It has been attacked for similar reasons but, perhaps because the animal rights movement is so strong in the UK, it doesn’t seem to have reached the same fevered pitch.
Still, between the unions and the animal rights activists, there are plenty of forces conspiring to attack the virtuous reputation that Tesco has attempted to build for its Fresh & Easy format.
We suspect the stores will be quite fresh, but we doubt this rollout will be particularly easy.