Kellogg’s Kant Flakes- Paper 2


            Today’s top stories too often read like a who’s who of corporate thugs- BP spills oil into the Gulf due to a lapse in safety regulations, Enron robs thousands of its own employees of their retirement savings, Nike exploits cheap foreign labor.  These goliath companies err in ways that indirectly impact consumers around the globe.  Seldom do we ever celebrate those companies that choose the ethical path.  Aside from an annual list of ethically-sound organizations published by the Ethisphere Institute, little is known about the do-gooders of the business world. Of those companies acknowledged for their principles, Kellogg Company has been a constant fixture on the list.  Its sterling reputation is solidified through continued efforts to improve various relationships with its stakeholders.  Kellogg’s corporate actions are examined in order to understand Kantian categorical imperatives as something more than mere theoretical abstractions.

Often mapped over business ethics, Kantian theory lives in the framework of three categorical imperatives:

1)      Act only on maxims which you can will to be universal laws of nature

2)      Always treat the humanity in a person as an end, and never as a means merely.

3)      So act as if you were a member of an ideal kingdom of ends in which you were both subject and sovereign at the same time[1]

When translated to the business arena, these rules dictate ethical corporate responsibility in very basic ways:

1)      Universalizability

2)      Treating stakeholders as persons

3)      Support the firm as a moral community[2]

Kant believed that truly ethical actions must have pure intent [2].  The moral motivation, free from self-interest, is the common thread that runs through all three categorical imperatives.  It is difficult to know for certain the motivation behind Kellogg’s ethical practices.  Its history, however, is rich with evidence of moral fortitude.

Before the times of smart phones and Twitter, when corporate actions were not constantly under the microscope of public scrutiny, Kellogg’s mission was to provide quality food to the masses.  If the test of character is what is done when no one is watching, then it is safe to say that Kellogg’s corporate character is enduring.  Since its founding in 1906, the company has held steadfast to the simple principles of its founder, W.K. Kellogg.  After learning of the health benefits in cereal product, Kellogg set out to make the product accessible to all: “We are a company of dedicated people making quality products for a healthier world.”[3]

The year 2012 marks the fourth time that Kellogg Company has appeared on the Ethisphere Institute’s list of the world’s most ethical companies. The Institute compiles the list with the principles of “the creation, advancement and sharing of best practices in business ethics, corporate social responsibility, anti-corruption and sustainability.”[4]  Kellogg seems to have these principles in spades. In fact, Kellogg Company was among the first to enact environmentally sustainable practices. It has been using recycled paper board to package the majority of its products since 1906 and is one of the United States’ largest users of recycled paperboard.

Businesses often attempt to justify unethical practices with the “but our competitors do it” excuse.  Unconcerned with the actions of other companies, Kellogg’s puts Kant’s first categorical imperative (universalizability) into practice through its efforts in environmental sustainability.  An annual press release details the company’s success in its “green” efforts.  A voluntary member of the EPA’s Climate Leaders program since 2006, Kellogg’s is dedicated to leading by example.  Membership in this government-industry coalition entails periodic audits of greenhouse gas emissions and intensive planning to manage such emissions.  Kellogg Company has also revolutionized packaging efficiency, recently eliminating 25 million pounds of paper packaging by shipping in bulk.  Over 80% of waste generated at manufacturing locations is recycled.  The proceeds of some product sales go directly to the Fruit Tree Planting Foundation, which plants orchards to be donated to low-income public schools.[5] These efforts, among others, serve as proof of Kellogg’s commitment to sustainability.  Kant would proclaim that if Kellogg’s environmental policies were universalized, the world would improve and benefit in meaningful ways.

The second categorical imperative relates to the stakeholder value theory.  Those that have stake in Kellogg Company are not exploited as a means to an end.  Commercial interactions are not forbidden by Kant’s second formulation, as long as both parties mutually benefit.  As childhood obesity rates have nearly tripled (1 in 3 children are obese or overweight) since 1963[6], Kellogg’s has vowed to maintain responsible marketing practices.  Ubiquitous advertising taglines such as “king-size” and “super-size” will never be seen on Kellogg’s packaging.  All images of products are presented in sensible portion sizes.  No brand campaign will target children under the age of 6 and promotional calendars incorporate educational content and healthy activities for children and families.  And of course, Kellogg’s breakfast cereal is to be consumed as “part of a balanced breakfast.”[7]

Even in its errors, Kellogg’s respects its consumers enough to be forthright about potential harm from their products.  Today, in fact, the company issued a voluntary recall on some boxes of Mini-Wheats.  A defective manufacturing part may have deposited metal mesh into some boxes[8].  This proactive admittance of fault exemplifies Kellogg’s dedication to its consumers’ well-being.

Employees also benefit from Kellogg’s real-life application of Kant’s second categorical imperative.  The corporate culture strongly supports a healthy balance between work and personal life.  In 2009, Kellogg’s ranked 30th out of 100 companies on The Sunday Times’ list of Best Companies to Work For[9].  In addition to typical policies on maternity and paternity leave, Kellogg’s Human Resources Department strives to increase human capital and employee satisfaction through various programs.  Its “Feeling Great” wellness program is fully funded by the company and offers reductions in health insurance premiums as an incentive to stimulate employee participation.  To reduce stress levels, bonuses are determined by group and company performance, not individual output (although the amount can be increased if the employee’s work is exceptional).  HR also provides programs to support personal employee development as well as study leaves.  These programs and policies depict Kant’s idea of positive freedom which is “the freedom to develop one’s human capacities.”[10]  Supporting this freedom increases autonomy on the job as well as employee self-respect.  It is clear that Kellogg Company’s treatment of its employees is that of means, not of ends.

Beyond employees and consumers, Kellogg’s puts Kant’s second categorical imperative into action via the Kellogg Foundation.  Also founded by W.K. Kellogg, the Foundation’s main goal is to promote child welfare.  Currently, the Foundation aims to increase the number of children who are proficient in both reading and math by the time they reach third grade[11].  Kellogg’s ethical consideration for its consumers, employees, and the global community demonstrates how highly it values its stakeholders.

Kant’s third categorical imperative applies to Kellogg’s corporate culture.  “Moral community” is a term rarely used to describe corporate structure.  Kellogg Company, however, has a history of making business decisions that benefit both employees and the surrounding community.  In the book Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day, author Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt explains how Kellogg Company rallied around a struggling Michigan town during the Great Depression.  Instead of maintaining eight-hour shifts, President Lewis J. Brown changed company policy to six-hour shifts in an effort to employ more people struggling to find work.  W.K. Kellogg explained that this change would “give work and paychecks to the heads of three hundred more families in Battle Creek” (Hunnicutt, 13).  By removing break times and cutting bonuses, employees across the board received a 12.5% hourly raise.  At a time when other companies executed massive layoffs to stay afloat, Kellogg’s managed to hire more workers, combating the town’s rising unemployment rate.  This is a testament to how the company is not only a moral community within itself, but also a positive, active member of the community at large.

All of this concern over corporate responsibility may have some questioning Kellogg’s fiscal success.  The company recently announced its third quarter returns—an impressive $3.7 billion in net sales boasts a 12.3% increase from the previous year[12].  In addition to these results, the following graph[13] compares the percent returns of the Ethisphere Institute’s Most Ethical Companies to that of Standard & Poor’s 500 (an index based off of the stock prices of top 500 domestic, publicly traded companies).

Although Kant would disapprove of moral decisions as a means to financial gain, it is clear that ethical behavior is valuable and does get rewarded.


[1] Bowie, Norman E. “A Kantian Approach to Business Ethics.” (n.d.): 3-16. Print.

[2] Baron, Peter. “Philosophical Investigations.” Philosophical Investigations. N.p., 23 Mar. 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.philosophicalinvestigations.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&gt;.

[3] “About Kellogg Company.” Our Vision & Purpose. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.kelloggcompany.com/en_US/our-vision-purpose.html&gt;.

[4] “Ethisphere Institute Unveils 2012 World’s Most Ethical Companies.” Press Release Distribution, Financial Disclosure, Online Newsrooms, PR, Public Relations, Investor Relations, EDGAR Filing, XBRL, Breaking News, Business News, Financial News. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2012.

[5] “Kellogg’s Official Website | Breakfast, Snacks, Recipes, Cereal.” Kellogg’s Official Website | Breakfast, Snacks, Recipes, Cereal. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.kelloggs.com/en_US/home.html&gt;.

[7] “Responsible Marketing.” Kellogg’s. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.kelloggs.co.uk/company/corporateresponsibility/responsiblemarketing.aspx&gt;.

[8] “Kellogg’s – Consumer Alert.” Kellogg’s – Consumer Alert. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://consumeralert.kelloggs.com/consumeralert.aspx?id=5596&gt;.

[9] “Kellogg’s Voted Best Company to Work for in Sunday Times Top 100 List 08/03/2009.” Kellogg’s Voted Best Company to Work for in Sunday Times Top 100 List. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.kelloggs.co.uk/whatson/pressoffice/News/working-at-kelloggs/kelloggs-voted-best-company-to-work-for-in-sunday-times-top-100-list&gt;.

[10] Baron, Peter. “Philosophical Investigations.” Philosophical Investigations. N.p., 23 Mar. 2010. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.philosophicalinvestigations.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&gt;.

[11] “What We Support.” W. K. Kellogg Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://www.wkkf.org/what-we-support/what-we-support.aspx&gt;.

[12] “Kellogg Company Announces Third-Quarter Results — Solid Underlying Performance.” (NYSE:K). N.p., 01 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://investor.kelloggs.com/releasedetail.cfm?ReleaseID=717795&gt;.

[13] “2011 Worlds Most Ethical Companies | Ethisphere Institute.” 2011 Worlds Most Ethical Companies. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2012. <http://ethisphere.com/2011-worlds-most-ethical-companies/&gt;.

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