Kaleveld explores the growing momentum towards putting
business on a solid ethical footing
What constitutes an ethical life? Aristotle, Rawls,
Mills and Kant aren't the only great minds to have pondered
the question. And yet we still don't have a fail-proof
manual on how to live well.
In June this year, the Vatican reviewed the Ten Commandments
and found them somewhat lacking. The addition of a Decalogue
for the Environment showed us that sometimes, even God's
commandments - those rules written in stone and ratified
by the Bible - need questioning and re-interpretation
in context. Now, as the corporation replaces religion
and government as the most powerful public institution
of our time (as is widely believed), are business ethics
also facing increased scrutiny and revision?
Let's rewind 20 years. It's the middle of the greed-is-good
decade, the 1980s. The corporation is still Milton Freidman's
baby, unfettered and answerable only to market forces
and profit margins. When Anita Roddick emerges as The
Body Shop's activist corporate leader, people are a
little nervous...and suspicious.
At World Trade Organisation meetings, she's not inside
with the suits, she's out on the street screaming with
the protestors. The international company she heads
up claims to defend human rights, save the whales, recycle
plastic and condemn animal testing. And in the late
1980s and early '90s, as share prices soared, The Body
Shop continued to maintain a circle of regard, not only
for its shareholders, but for other cultures, other
species and the planet as a whole.
Anita Roddick passed away late last year. I had the
privilege, however, of seeing her speak at Edith Cowan
University in Western Australia, years ago. She was
all long earrings and boots, with a ballsy, hell-raising
vocabulary. She had travelled the globe on the wings
of ideology. Yes, Dame Roddick exchanged beauty secrets
with the women of Sri Lanka and listened to those people
facing hardship in places like Nigeria and Brazil. Importantly,
she looked the people she traded with in the eye. She
spoke of an emotionally honest fair trade, non-exploitative
labour practices, safe working environments and pay
Ethics academic Paul Lester claims that sound ethics
mean making decisions that "can be justified to
all who disagree" (1). And justifying her position
was something Anita Roddick did, with enthusiasm. In
her book Business as Unusual she says: "Microsoft
could fund the National Health Service [of the UK],
the Royal Navy and the Army for a year, all by itself,
and still have change to spare...Half of everything
spent by British consumers goes into the coffers of
just 250 companies. So in terms of power and influence,
you can forget the Church and forget politics, too.
There is no more powerful institution in society than
business. It is more important than ever before for
business to assume a moral leadership in society."(2)
In retrospect, it seems strange that Anita Roddick
spent so much of her public life defending herself,
as if it were her ideals and values that needed justification,
while, in the meantime, we tolerated the silence of,
for example, Phil Knight, the then CEO of Nike, the
senior managers of Shell Oil or the many other corporations
who roamed the globe procuring low wages and lax environmental
regulations. I suppose they had the status quo on their
side. Roddick did not.
Roddick faced a culture that was not convinced business
could handle planet-embracing ethics. Anyone who tried
was therefore suspicious. In the 1990s, The Body Shop's
main target consumer group were those young Gen-Xers
with their signature cynicism. They read Naomi Klein's
No Logo and saw Body Shop activism as "marketing".
Soon enough, American journalist Jon Entine exposed
layers of hypocrisy in the mega-organisation. Last year,
he wrote: "For a brief period into the early 1990s,
a commercial magic enveloped the company...[Roddick]
never could decide whether she wanted to practise her
social vision or merely exploit it."(3)
But still, exploiting and marketing a social vision
is always going to be better than not having one at
all. In recent years, there's been a flourishing of
businesses founded on ethical principles. The GreenBiz
Café website showcases the best of corporate
citizenship, some of it truly inspiring. The world's
second largest pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline,
for example - a company that has spent a fortune researching
cancer - has decided to make information available to
the research community for free.
"There have always been good and 'not so good'
business people - this hasn't changed," Mary Hendriks
of the GreenBiz Café, Sydney says. "What
has changed is our concept of good. Business people
now consider the global impact of products and services,
and need to be aware of the fairness of where they come
from and where they are disposed. Even though it's just
beginning, there's a new awareness emerging in the commercial
world, that thinking globally and responsibly is good
ethical practice in business."
As a consumer, it's easy to love Australian Ethical
Investments (I'd rather they have my money than the
big four banks), shops like Ethical Threads (sweatshop-free
designs and sustainably grown fabrics), the Fair Go
Trading and Source Organic Foods (Perth's cafe that
Even Starbucks and McDonalds, the most hard hearted,
profit motivated and widely criticised of corporations,
have made a recent switch to Fair Trade certified coffee
without provoking too much knee jerk cynicism (...although
I still personally cringe at McDonalds' new "sustainability
look" of muted greens and browns).
In January this year, I met with architect Andrew Webb,
co-director of a Sunshine Coast architecture firm, WD
Architects. He says his company takes their ethical
mandate...well, as far as they can take it. And I soon
realise he's quite serious about that. Andrew and his
business partner Chris Duffy's office may not be as
eco-stylish as the McDonalds Café, but their
crockery and furniture really is the most environmentally-friendly
that money can buy - just purchased from a secondhand
shop down the road.
I take a look around the office. The kitchen is stocked
with organic, locally sourced tea, Fair Trade coffee
and biodegradable cleaning products. Nothing new about
that. More unusual is the worm farm for food scraps.
I've never seen an office with a worm farm before.
Andrew tells me the staff use Australian Ethical Investment
superannuation funds, and business cards made with vegetable-based
inks on recycled paper. The company mural is painted
with non-toxic paint. PVC-based stationery products
are avoided, and Tim Tams strictly prohibited (the biscuits
use palm oil, not very orangutan friendly).
The same level of thought and care extends to WD Architects'
buildings - from the projects they accept (they designed
the first straw bale wildlife hospital for Wildlife
Warriors), to every detail of the materials they specify
"Deformed shank nails are better," Andrew
says. That's one product he's sure about choosing and
using. But when sourcing materials for an entire hospital,
house or hotel there are also taps, light switches,
paints, door handles, adhesives and sealants to make
ethically informed decisions about.
Which product has the least environmental impact? Does
it need to be transported a great distance? Is it manufactured
in humane conditions? Is it manageable for builders
to work with? Does it have an impact on human or ecological
health? Can it be recycled or disassembled and reused
"There's no perfect answer, but some answers are
better than others," Andrew says. "Aluminium
is light to transport, and cheap to use, but such a
huge amount of energy goes into making it, so we avoid
it." Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) could be a
health hazard for cabinetmakers: "The dust particles
are toxic and too fine for the nose to filter out. If
this becomes a crisis similar to asbestos, who is responsible?"
WD Architects use a low-VOC (volatile organic compound)
There are very few perfect materials. "Timber
for example. Pine plantations can be eco-friendly, unless
a local habitat has been destroyed for it. Engineered
timbers are good, but the glues in them give off toxic
gas. And laminate is good environmentally, but we have
to look at its longevity, the adhesives needed and adaptability
for future generations," Andrew says.
Weighing the value of materials against ethical standards
is complex enough. Then factor in clients' objectives,
Australian building regulations and the ability of the
building industry to work with alternative materials.
"Builders have liability issues, so to suggest
an unknown is sometimes a big ask," Andrew says.
"There's also the profitability of just doing what
they know. That's a big reason for the general inertia
in the building industry."
Practising ethics in conditions of constraint and compromise
is part of the deal, for architects, for anyone. But
Andrew isn't discouraged. Years ago, after his first
solo project designing a school in Northern India, he
remembers Carleton University School of Architecture
guest professor Essy Baniassad saying, "You have
to have a Northern Star to guide you; it doesn't mean
you will reach it."
It's an apt metaphor for working ethically in an imperfect
world. There's no simple rulebook. And whether you're
a company or an individual, giving an ethical mandate
real meaning requires a consistent effort to investigate
and really engage with complexity.
There's always so much to learn, Andrew says. "I've
had an amazing run of clients. Some have done lots of
research about the best composting toilet or solar hot
water panel. But I'm always looking to do more research.
At least 10 per cent of my time is spent on research
- not all architecture firms do this."
One hundred years ago, the work of a business was to
make enough profit to survive, full stop. Public interest,
fairness, humaneness, and stewardship of the planet
weren't even part of business consciousness. The concept
of a "good corporate citizen" was for radicals
and even corporate contributions to charity were illegal.
Thirty years ago, GreenBiz's Mary Hendriks explains,
business values were mostly about responsibility for
your product and caring for the community, perhaps via
sponsorship of sport or community activities. "However,
there was only minimal understanding of the way products
were produced, and even less of the impact of using
and disposing those products."
The Body Shop is not without flaws. But in the 1980s,
in a high profile way, Anita Roddick managed to at least
expand the concept of business practice, to introduce
planet embracing ethics, and to put this ambition and
this guiding star on the horizon for all to see.
Since then business leaders and consumers have learnt
a bit of cunning, a bit of cynicism (and the art of
green washing), and have certainly learnt to pay lip
service to the idea of the triple bottom line. But what
matters is that we're now comfortable mixing commercial
interest and ethical practice, we're beginning to expect
it, and we might even get better at it.
There are now not-for-profit organisations like St
James Ethics Centre, created in 1988, devoted to nutting
out what ethical management means. For businesses, they
provide ethics consulting and counselling services,
forums and symposiums, ethics leadership development,
business training and even accreditation.
Things can change quickly. As the economy moves from
an industrial model to a networked model, products are,
more and more, branded and sold in communities of shared
ideals. This means, in the Information Age, the principle
as well as the product is for sale. And for some consumers
and some businesses, that's always going to be worth
1. Lester, P 1999, 'Chapter Three: Finding a Philosophical
Perspective', Photojournalism An Ethical Approach, Retrieved
September 3, 2007, from http://commfaculty.fullerton.edu/lester/writings/chapter3.html
2. Roddick, A 2000, Business as Unusual, Harper Collins,
3. Entine, J September 21 2007, The Myth of the Green
Queen, National Post, Canada