The social responsibility of Theme Parks


There is a historic opportunity that Theme Park owners have yet to embrace. With nearly a billion visits annually worldwide, they could reshape the way we all think about businesses and their supply chains.

Yesterday, I found myself in one of those very well known theme parks – this one just outside Paris, France. The experience of having a Caribbean dinner, served by a Scottish waiter in an American Theme Park in France was surreal but suspending disbelief is something adults get used to when entering into the magic with their children. But these parks, especially those owned by global entertainment companies, have vast supply chains and spend a lot of time and resources managing them.  In between the sassy princesses, intergalactic heroes and charming pirates there is a conversation with park goers that never seems to happen. Where did all the stuff come from, who made it and how was it made?  Yes, I know these places are about entertainment and escapism – which I love – but it is also big business, and one with huge potential leverage it is not using.

Those of us that work on issues of business and human rights know that the own-fashioned way of working on social standards in supply chains (i.e. the audit led approach driven by the brand) is limited in its effectiveness as well as being very expensive. Following agreement at the United Nations, OECD, European Union and elsewhere, we are now all looking for approaches that look at real impact and preventing abuses occurring in the first place (as well as effective remedies when they do) – not just chasing for evidence of non-compliance to codes of conduct. After the Rana Plaza factory collapse two years ago, which killed over 1,100 workers producing garments for many western companies, some theme park owners proudly announced that they were not sourcing from Bangladesh anyhow.

Not sourcing from particular countries, particularly those as poor as Bangladesh, does not seem to be what the largely female workforce really wants, at least that is my experience when I visit many of these places. Many women rely on such jobs to escape rural poverty and male domination and can really benefit from the opportunities that such investments bring – they just don’t want to be killed or exploited when doing it. Their own stories are sometimes no less heroic than those the themes parks themselves celebrate in the films upon which many of the attractions are based. The same is equally true of China, Ethiopia or Vietnam – wherever the supply chain is rooted. In the case of the Theme Park I was at yesterday, it was very much China when my family surveyed the labels on the cuddly toy and dolls (what kind of a fun dad am I?).

Companies also complain that when they do engage in undertaking systematic human rights due diligence, they are not often rewarded by their investors, customers or NGOs for doing so. And if something does go wrong – and bad things will always still sometimes happen even to good companies – there is little safe haven or reward given in the court of public opinion as a result of all the preventative steps taken. It is very tempting, and cost effective, for NGOs to beat up on a well-known brand for its slip up rather than the company no one has heard of, and over which the consumer has little influence or interest. And what about the general public itself? They are many years behind in their awareness of what responsible business means, and they have little credible or accessible information about which companies to trust and which to avoid.

So if the status quo does not suit companies that claim to be serious about business and human rights, why not work together to move the whole discussion  up to the next level and end such perverse incentives which means that leaders are penalised more than companies that creep under the radar and do nothing. That means educating investors and consumers in how the industry works and the real choices that are being made to maximise the benefit for poor communities whilst reducing the chance of human rights abuse. It means empowering the public – the people of the world (i.e. us all) – to take up some of the responsibility ourselves and make better choices on how we reward companies with our wallets. Including which Theme Parks we take our children to and the stories about the world we tell them.

According to industry statistics, Theme Parks receive a global total of nearly a billion visitors each year! I know it’s incredible. Now, acknowledging that a fair percentage of these are repeat visitors and that the majority of the world’s population cannot reach or afford to go, and there are many who would not want to in any case, it is still an incredible slice of the global population (currently at 7.2 billion). So, together with the global sports and media industries, entertainment is one of those that really does touch billions of lives. If we want to engage the global public in human rights awareness, there are few better opportunities.

My guess is that many reading this will think that it is I who am trapped in a fairy story and not the Theme Park owners. And yes, there are many ways that public education could be done badly. But these companies employ some of the world’s best creative talent – I am sure they could make it compelling. How about a small section of the park, perhaps near the exit, where the ‘heroes of the supply chain’ could be celebrated in a very interactive way – and the stories of business and consumer responsibility effectively told at a very human level. And, yes, the dignity and rights of the workers in the theme parks themselves would require full attention.

There are not yet enough commercial and political incentives for governments and business to really get beyond a lot of the rhetoric of recent years. If done well, this could begin to grow the pool of informed consumers who begin to ask the right questions of businesses.

Is any Theme Park owner brave enough to take this challenge – perhaps redirecting a little of the many hundreds of millions of dollars spent on auditors and compliance to something that will really make a lasting difference for generations to come? I am not saying that such leadership would be easy. It is a radical proposition that would need an enlightened CEO and Board willing to stick its neck out for the sake of the whole sector and with a wider social purpose. Many would criticise and wait for the first fall from grace to show the double-standards of corporate spin and PR compared with reality. And it would take impartial oversight to maintain credibility.

But isn’t leadership and risk-taking what Theme Parks are all about?

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