How would you rate a business in terms of the level of responsibility it takes? You're reading this page, so maybe you're the type of person who thinks about taking responsibility for your actions... If you set up a company tomorrow, you would probably think first about its commercial success, (otherwise you'd be setting up a charity wouldn't you?) But the thought of running a company that succeeds at the expense of others is a matter of personal ethics - luckily most of us have a problem with this kind of success.

But then, you've got to eat... So there are times when we feel that commercial success is really necessary for our own survival, and ethics can wait!

So perhaps there's a balance to be struck. Many of us work in order to live, to feed ourselves and our dependents. We run our own organisations or we work for someone else's. Some of us can afford to make ethical decisions about the organisations we run or work for, others can't.

Let's say we can afford to step back and take a long look at the organisation's ethics though. Lucky us. So, are we happy with those ethics? What are they?

Last year I was told about a major high street bank that ran a campaign publicising its business services for business customers. The slogan was, wait for it...

'Because business is all about putting number one first'.

Food for thought! If that's true, it's lucky we're not all business people then.

Business, like any other activity we're aware of, is never about black and white. There are always actions more or less likely to encourage profit, but how are you defining profit? John Lewis was an intellectual with a classical education. When he decided to open shops, he did so because he thought retail was the best way to invest in people - provide work, provide security, stimulate personal growth for individuals. He was interested in an ethical profit right at the beginning.

Our consciences will give us a message about when there's a right time to think about income and when we need to pay attention to our responsibilities. It's unrealistic to expect business people to take social responsibility in a way that undermines their business, but it's realistic to expect business people to operate their businesses in a way that doesn't ignore their social responsibilities.

Nota Bene: this of course means that, if we want to be mean, we can exert pressure on businesses to act responsibly by undermining their business until they do... perhaps that kind of direct action involves us in our own morally questionable behaviours. Sure, we can justify them, but maybe the very fact that we need to justify that aggression reveals that there's a moral question to be answered by the protagonist.

What can we do to encourage the best from business then? Here are some ideas.

  • Inform yourself - if there's a company that you're interested to learn about, in terms of its ethical behaviour, look it up at CorpWatch or the Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire.
  • Beware - this information may make you miserable.
  • See if you can link responsibility in business to business reward - when you see a company doing something good, recognise, thank, congratulate, buy from them. And tell them why you bought from them too - just as you can hurt a company through sanctions, you can encourage one by making a money reward for good behaviour. After all, we all know that smacking a bad dog is an ineffective way to train it to be good...
  • Things that organisations might be getting right are
    • Supporting community organisations through employee volunteering or by giving cash
    • Paying fair wages and providing good working conditions
    • Trading fairly with suppliers, rather than squeezing the margins to the point where products are always sourced from the poorest corners of the world
    • Making products that are safe and durable
    • Applying their environmental policy
    • Trying to be carbon neutral
    • Providing leadership in social and environmental issues.

Finally, how about giving a link to this page to a business person we know?

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