Top 10 business ethics documentaries to watch

Here's my roundup of 10 business ethics documentaries that address various ethical issues arising in professional and business settings.

12 mins read
business ethics documentaries
Photo | 300Hours

The idea of Business Ethics probably started 50 years ago when people started becoming more concerned about the environment, human rights and the questionable business practices that some companies engaged in.

While News media outlets covered the temporary incidents of the time, there were few, if any, full-length documentaries that examined the ethical standards and practices in the corporate world. Well-made documentaries that probed business and shone a light on controversial problems required time and money that few film companies wanted to make.

Documentaries that were made often became passion projects of angry and concerned investors who cared little about making money. The return on their investment was to reveal critical issues in business ethics and to make the average citizen irate enough to push for social change.

These days, practically, anyone with a camera and a computer has the power to voice their concerns about how business conduct themselves and, in some cases, provide social justice to victims. With the power of the internet and streaming services, the number of business documentaries has exploded in recent years and in some cases able to make big profits.

While some of these new documentaries provide an entertaining look at the struggles of individuals or companies and their success, a growing number of these documentaries show how unethical businesses have damaged the lives of many people or created catastrophic, world changing events. Some documentaries blame the people in charge and others blame outside groups. Some Show big ideas that failed or that were deliberately quashed and a few others show how the fear of missing out (FOMO) and greed can produce disastrous results.

As we progress into the future, the creation of new business will lead us into uncharted territory, leaving us to question our ethical role in the businesses that we create. Here is a list of 10 business ethics documentaries that will remind us why businesses need to behave ethically.

I. Rodger and Me (1989)

This 1989 documentary by the then amateur film maker Michael Moore may be considered the beginning of the social justice business documentary which provided a template for many to follow. Rodger and Me was Moore’s first documentary, after which he became very famous for his tongue and cheek style movies. At the time, Moore was very concerned about the impact of General Motors leaving his town of Flint Michigan. He interviewed some of the 30,000 people who lost their jobs at the plant and showed the devastating effects that the move had. The film also shows how Moore desperately tried to get an interview with the then CEO Rodger B. Smith. The documentary truly shows how the power of one person and a camera can highlight a major company’s ethical choices.

2. FYRE (festival) (2019)

fyre festival
Photo | inkl

FYRE was supposed to be one of the biggest and most exclusive music events in America. The festival was planned by an extremely optimistic and energetic entrepreneur named Billy Mcfarland. Billy wanted to create the ultimate festival/party on a luxurious island in the Bahamas where guests could stay in beautiful suites, eat gourmet food and enjoy a few days of partying while watching famous musicians. Soon after plans were started, it quickly became apparent that motivation and passion are not as good as realism. Watch this movie to find out how many people were affected and how much money was lost.

3. Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)

Today everyone knows about electric cars and some even own one. However, in the late 80’s it was almost a dream to actually develop one. This film focuses on the development and then the destruction of General Motors electric car, the EV1. We see how the car was created and marketed and how a few celebrities like Mel Gibson tried to own one. But why is that only a few people have heard of an EV1? Why would a company create a seemingly revolutionary car only to have the majority of them destroyed? While it seems that the culprit of this nightmare would be General Motors, the film shows that there were a few more players that ultimately ended the life of a remarkable car.

4. The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

The Enron corporation was one of the world’s largest financial scandals. The “smart guys” in the film are Chairman Ken Lay and CEO Jeff Skilling and a few others who committed massive financial fraud at Enron, an energy and commodities company. The documentary shows how many of the Executives willingly perpetuated the fraud and the terrible financial cost that the bankruptcy created on its employees and even the death of the Chief Strategy Officer. You might argue that Enron had absolutely no business ethics when it came to profits.

Read Also: 10 Best Business Movies for Entrepreneurs

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5. The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019)

Out of Blood

This HBO documentary is different than most other business scandal documentaries in that it comes from the medical world. Founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was once declared a genius Entrepreneur and billionaire only to later have her value reduced to zero, her company dissolved and the Government planning to put her in jail. This story follows how Elizabeth at a young age had a burning desire to be a billionaire and how she went on to create a revolutionary blood testing device capable of performing over 200 blood tests. Many rich and famous people were eager to invest large amounts of money into the Edison blood testing machine without even seeing if it could really do what the company promised. Watch this to see how many people were engulfed by the fear of missing out on the next big financial success that they were completely blindsided by the truth.

6. Walmart – The High Cost of Low Prices (2005)

As one of the world’s largest business, Walmart has taken many criticisms of things like how they are involved in local communities, how they maintain their low prices and how they treat their workers. This film looks at the very human side of how people have been affected by the retail giant and how Walmart has gained its huge amount of wealth. The film calls into question many of Walmart’s business practices and while some of them may not be illegal, they certainly may challenge the viewers feelings on ethics.

7. Food Inc. (2008)

Ever wondered where some of your food actually comes from? Ever thought about how your food is processed? After watching this documentary, you may not be too hungry. Director Robert Kenner examines how much food production has changed in the last 50 years and the negative effects of keeping food cheap. He goes on to show how only a small number of companies control our food and how much technology has been used to modify our food. Food Inc. also shows how consumers, food workers and even the animals themselves face troubling health risks. So, while you may enjoy your cheeseburger, this documentary will ask you “at what cost”?

8. The Great Hack (2019)

the great hack

Data privacy has really come to the forefront of issues we now face. Many people often live in fear of losing their personal data; credit card numbers or passwords being hacked and stolen. Those things are considered financially valuable to thieves and a commodity that can sold to others wanting to cause harm. But what about selling your search history? Is it valuable?

This documentary examines a few people who were involved with Cambridge Analytica, the now defunct political consulting firm. The firm used billions of pieces of data to influence American and Brexit elections. The film focuses on Brittany Kaiser, an ex-employee of Cambridge Analytica (former director of business development). In the documentary, Brittany is considered a whistleblower, going public with her information even though she fears for her life. This film brings us into a new era of business ethics and examines what is and what is not private.

9. Inside Job (2010)

If you ever wanted to know about the 2008 financial crisis in a relatively short period of time, this documentary is for you. Narrated by actor Matt Damon, the movie explores in depth the corruption of the U.S. financial services and its effect on the entire world when the crisis hit. The film ironically doesn’t start in the United States but begins in Iceland where the country’s largely deregulated banks was an indicator of worse things to come. Many Professors, Politicians and other business professionals give their input on how the financial collapse began.

10. Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (2004)

While the documentary itself may not be completely unbiased, it has been praised by critics. Director Robert Greenwald sets out to show that while the Fox News Channel claims to be fair and ethical in its treatment of news, it is anything but. Robert interviews many former Fox employees and shows a lot of Fox News footage to get his point across. The movie also focuses on Rupert Murdoch and his vast media empire and examines if one man having that much control of media is a good thing. Outfoxed will have you wondering how much business ethics exists in the world of television news.


James Culbertson is an American educator based in Japan. He is also a movie reviewer and critic.

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