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Business: An 'inside story' that only skims the surface

There's something distinctly unfulfilling about Fran Hawthorne's book -- 'Ethical Chic -- The Inside Story of the Companies We Think We Love'.

From a European perspective, the issue is that she focuses on six US firms -- only two, perhaps three, would have any real resonance with consumers here -- Apple, Starbucks and Timberland. But that's forgivable.

Hawthorne -- a onetime journalist and editor with publications such as BusinessWeek and Fortune, sets out her stall early.

She says she'll delve into the target companies to see if they really deserve their ethical credentials.

"Is it possible for a product to be both trendy and socially responsible? To be trusted and loved?" she writes.

The problem is that Hawthorne spends too much time recounting company history -- ostensibly, one presumes, to give some broader perspective as to how its corporate culture evolved -- and not enough time exploring the ethical issues behind the brands.

Sure, with Apple she relates the troubles at the Foxxconn factories in China for instance, but a big chunk of the chapter is devoted to retelling the company's history.

She then focuses on the admittedly absurd secrecy that pervades at Apple and which was fostered and developed by the late Steve Jobs. That secrecy is the key issue at Apple in determining its ethical credentials, she says.

With Starbucks, there's again a lengthy corporate history that eventually yields to questions such as its use of Fairtrade coffee and attempts to ensure unions don't get a foothold.

But there's questionable space devoted to determining why baristas don't really talk much to customers, and even whether customers interact with each other when they sit down for an expensive coffee.

That's all cloaked around an effort to understand "depersonalisation" when the author visited dozens of outlets.

"Out of 420 customers at the counter during those visits, merely 25 talked with baristas," she laments. What's more lamentable is that the book missed an opportunity to revitalise well-trodden ground.

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Indo Business