Business and the free market provide critical additions to society, offering us an incredible array of goods and services. Many firms are quite ethical. But others consider profits higher priority than human lives, and the heart cries out.
On June 14, fire broke out in a Grenfal Towers, a London housing block. Flames leapt quickly through the 24 story building; the death toll is 80 and counting. The inferno began on the fourth floor in a refrigerator, but climbed the building with astonishing speed (click on the link and you’ll see the fire’s progression). As a New York Times report put it, “Flames consumed the tower so quickly that arriving firefighters wondered if they could even get inside. People trapped on the higher floors screamed for their lives through broken windows.”
The reason the fire spread so quickly—and hence incinerated so many—was because of the cladding. This is a product called Reynobond PE, which is made of two sheets of aluminum forming a sandwich around a flammable core of polyethylene. It is marketed by Arconic, the new name for Alcoa, after last year’s reorganization of that giant firm.
So let’s be clear: Reynobond PE is an incendiary; if it catches it burns, and quickly. How did the company respond to this tragedy?
Arconic has been marketing the product for some time, with a notice that it should not be used on buildings over seventy-five feet high (reflecting the span of fire ladders). Arconic released a statement that it would now stop selling the cladding panels in high-rises. It explained, “We believe this is the right decision because of the inconsistency of building codes across the world and issues that have arisen in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy regarding code compliance of cladding systems in the context of buildings’ overall designs.” It will continue to sell the product in structures of a single or two stories.
Let us examine this account. First, there is the implication that the company knew of the dangers in this product, and still sold it anyway. Arconic, by the way, makes a similar cladding that is much safer and only costs a little more. But profits are profits and as long as cheap and corrupt governments but these products, they’ll sell them. And folks will burn.
Next there is the issue of still selling to structures below a certain height. Yes, ladders can evacuate residents of these buildings. If they get there in time (as we can see if the footage from Grenfal Tower, Reynobond PE burns quickly). And the structures are still burning, with everything folks have inside them. In part because of Arconic’s product. Nevertheless, Arconic will sell happily in these situations. Thus, the company has assessed the risks and liabilities, weighed against profits. And human beings. From my perspective, instead, people are people, no matter the height of the building they live in, and do not deserve to die in fire or watch their possessions blaze.
Under British laws corporations can be charged with manslaughter. If convicted, I would clad the homes of corporate executives in Reynobond PE, ask everyone to leave, light the place up, and let them call the Fire Department.
Then there was the refrigerator, marketed by Whirlpool under its Hotpoint brand name. While models sold in the United States have backs made out of metal, the ones they sell in the UK have backs made out of plastic. If a fire breaks out, it will not be contained and instead will spread rapidly. In Grenfal Towers, it reached cladding that goes up in a flash. The London Fire Brigade has campaigned vigorously to ban appliances with this configuration. Whirlpool’s comment: “Our products meet all mandatory regulatory and safety standards.” Put another way, “If you let us, we’ll sell products that kill people. Stop us if you can.”
And there are still other issues. The New York Times examined Dorney Tower, a similar, 23-story public housing building.
That’s a lot of floors, a lot of apartments. And above all, a lot of people. Yet it has only one flight of stairs for residents to evacuate. In New York City, by way of contrast, any building over seventy-five feet high must have at least two stairwells encased in concrete to facilitate flight during a fire situation. If a building goes over 420 feet it must a third stairwell.
That’s not all. Dorney also lacked working fire doors, while other buildings they looked at had none at all. These are critical to keep a fire contained, to keep it from blossoming to other parts of the building.
These conditions exist for several reasons. First, as in the United States, publicly-funded buildings are often held to a lower standard. Poor lives are cheaper than other lives.
Second, government permitted this, either because of ideology or corruption. As the Times put it, “Experts say at least part of the reason Britain has less-strict fire codes is because business-friendly governments have pared back regulations.”
And finally, business fought for unsafe buildings. As Thomas Fariello, first deputy commissioner for the city’s Department of Buildings, which enforces building codes, put it, “We have the developers on our back a lot, because they want to build, build, build….We are kind of in their way a lot to make these things safe.”
Some businesses are angels, advancing all of our interests.
And some are killers.