A decade or so ago I was a new Trustee on the Board of a large charitable organisation; we delivered increased charitable impact by using the income from our trading arm to boost our charitable resources. The mission and values of this organisation embodied everything I believed in. Its practice towards its employees was deliberately built on an ethic of respect and care; and the benefit of its clients and stakeholders was at the heart of the business. It regularly turned down potential commissions if they were not in keeping with its values.
At one Board meeting I found myself scrutinising papers from the Investment Sub-Committee in which it made recommendations on the organisation’s investment policy. I was troubled to see that some of our funds were invested in tobacco. It caused quiet discomfort when I raised my concern – but it felt that the naïveté I had shown by speaking up as a novice on the Board enabled the issue to be passed off as a slight but necessary evil. In other words, the likely growth of our capital was still at the time seen by our fund manager to be more important than the kind of ethical investing which would have been more in keeping with the soul of our business.
I take time to describe this insight as a way of exemplifying the complex and multiple ways by which a company can embrace ethical practice in its business purpose – and yet still be found wanting in some aspect or other of its operations. How often do we hear nowadays of organisations whose purpose for being is inherently charitable but whose operations in practice fall short of the standards expected?
The opposite, however, is also true. A business can be held up as exemplary in its ethical practice and yet its products or services are known to cause harm. What’s more, as society’s norms and tolerances evolve, so do our thresholds of belief about what is and is not ethically tolerable.
There is no question that there is an enlivened interest in ‘mission-led’ business – and a desire to move towards a more inclusive economy in which prosperity is shared and businesses are expected to consider their wider role in society as well as their responsibility to shareholders. Indeed, it is seen to be important for new businesses to find market opportunities which change the world for the better and even for incumbents to innovate and change in order to do so, too. This is a truly welcome break with the unbounded excess of consumer-chasing capitalism, although there is a long way to go yet before the interests of people and planet will supersede profit.
So, we find ourselves at a moment in time in which both business mission and practice are evolving: it is increasingly important for both to stand up to ethical scrutiny, difficult though that can be. We also, however, are at a point in our history when humanity’s willful blindness about the impact we are having on our planet is ending in an abrupt realisation of the urgency with which we must act. Whilst governments are being shamed for their inaction by our children, can business show the way? Can we innovate at sufficient pace to create new business opportunity from our perilous circumstance and can we do as our children ask and make sure all our practices which impact on the climate and environment change, too?