What are we known for? Historically the North East has been a centre of innovation (“the silicon valley of its day”, as the historian David Olusoga recently put it), of shipbuilding and coal-mining. This is the stuff of history. Today pollsters find us reputed for our friendliness despite deindustrialisation and the deprivation that has followed in its wake – the Guardian once referred to this as ‘pathological friendliness’. Other than its attractiveness to call centre operators and tourists, this reputation will not be enough to secure our future.
Whilst a decade ago, the think tank Policy Exchange told job hunters in North East towns to move south because our cities were ‘beyond revival’, policy makers continue to back particular sectors as the key to growth. Our Local Economic Strategy is centred on Digital, Advanced Manufacturing, Health & Life Sciences and Energy as economic drivers. But does our ability to attract and retain innovators, creatives and investors rely solely on sectoral clusters? Are there other features of doing business in the North East that could contribute to a developing USP?
Partly in answer to this, regional employer networks have come together to form a North east Ethical Business Network. This includes the North East Chamber, the CBI, Asian Business Connections, the Institute of Directors and Federation of Small. The network will enable ethical businesses and professionals to exchange ideas, encourage best practice and enhance our reputation as not only a good place to do business but a good place to do business.
Key elements of ethical business include a commitment to sustainability, waste minimisation, sound sourcing, reporting on environmental and social impact, effective corporate governance, enabling employee volunteering, encouraging diversity, equalising opportunities, looking after employees’ physical and mental health, supporting customers with special needs, engaging in philanthropic work, acting transparently, involving employees in decision-making, designing jobs to enable meaningful work and limiting pay differentials.
This is a long list and whilst firms’ size, reach and success all affect upon what they can do; access to information and best practice can help every firm. The business case for prioritising ethics is becoming ever stronger. Recent research from Deloitte shows that graduates are increasingly concerned with company’s ethics in choosing who to work for and whilst price drives contracts in business, good reputation wins out where price differences are marginal. At the same time, social media, whistle-blowers, regulatory regimes and increasing demands on corporate reporting (such as the gender pay gap) make it ever easier to lose a good reputation – just ask Volkswagen.
The North East has strong grounds to argue that our business community is committed to ethics. We are the home to the Ethical Superstore, Traidcraft, the ethical bank Shared Interest and Northumbrian Water which has ranked first in ‘Business in the Community’s’ Corporate Index. Newcastle was one of Britain’s first ‘fair trade’ cities and the UK wide Community Foundation was founded here 30 years ago. My local high street in Low Fell boasts a shop devoted to ethical products, a social enterprise serving parents and young children and an estate agents that has kept veterans off the streets. All five regional universities share a commitment to this agenda and Northumbria figures in the world’s top 50 universities for business
ethics research (forgive the plug).
Ethical practice is rooted in our history. As research for the Festival of Philanthropy showed us last year, many of the region’s most important institutions are legacies pf philanthropic giving by industrialists and nobility. At the other end of the class divide, trade unionism is pivotal to our self-understanding-it is always worth remembering that the Jarrow marchers were supported by all three local political parties and businesses. Outsiders to the region often note our commitment to fairness, an egalitarian world-view in which ostentatious consumption is frowned upon. Admittedly this next one is a stretch but forensic accounting research into the medieval Prince Bishops of Durham has (almost literally) unearthed the finding that their commitment to the common good meant that their tenants were treated far better than those in other parts of the country; OK, that was a stretch.
What is not a stretch is the commitment of today’s regional business leaders to ethical standards. The North East Ethical Business Network aims, amongst other things, to develop our reputation as a region of ethical business. Greggs will host their first networking event on Monday evening. You can look at the North East Initiative on Business Ethics website for details.
Ron Beadle is Professor of Organisation and Business Ethics at Northumbria University
This article first appeared in The Journal