Define ‘Ethical Business’ then, Pazza

OK. I apologise that this blog post will be halfbaked. because it’s 00:45 and my girls will jump on my bed in 7 hours time. And I’m listening to some TED videos at the same time.

Anyway I wanted to get this down on the Why Not? notepad.

Today I looked at five organisations which caught my eye for different reasons:
– Cooperative (retail, banking etc)
– GOOD Inc / GOOD/Corps
– ERM (Environmental Resource Management)
– Puma/Trucost
– Gates Foundation

What they have in common is an approach to business ethics that I find informative, in the context of my current research (defining ‘Ethical Business’, in a broader context of understanding the relationships between the environment and ICT (clue: acceleration of human impacts through technology) and between society and economics (money=trust). Put those four together and … er … you get my new business, whatever that will be. See previous post that explains who I’m selling to and why, and why I don’t yet know what I’m selling or how much for. But that’s Ok, because business is now about participation, not consumption (thanks, GOOD/Corps).

Enough rambling.

So for each one of the five orgs, what’s interesting?
– Cooperative (retail, banking etc): Community-based ethical business model, established 1844 in Northern England, product of industrial revolution. Founded to counter unethical retail practices such as putting sand in sugar. Recently updated with ‘Join the Revolution’ as the organisation realised it had lost its way – produced a set of new challenges that are at once mundane and profound. Believable. A leader once more. Global reach: also known as the Cooperative Movement, which globally has over 1 billion members. Yes that’s not a typo. So about a third of working-age adults worldwide are members of cooperatives. What interested me today was the ongoing and periodical concerns raised by the ethical positions of its various branches, eg the Bank and Cooperative Investment Services. They still seem to have issues with this: oddly, their own ethical information suggests they offer different ‘levels’ of ethics. Lack of clarity? Lack of confidence? Or a strategy to bridge from non-ethical to deep-ethical in a series of stepping stones?

– GOOD Inc / GOOD/Corps
Interesting one this. I found GOOD Inc via Guy Kawasaki and it was one of my major “oh I WISH I’d done THAT!” moments. The skirtingd took a battering I can tell you. Why? Because of the confidence. The balls to put together a site showcasing brilliant positive ideas (charities, orgs, businesses) and just call it GOOD. I’d spent months debating with myself what I meant by Good and Bad and being shy to show people my ‘ethical scales’ diagram. Here it was – done. And done really well. Cue massive sulk. Anyway, today I looked at their ‘About Us’ and found GOOD/Corps, their business end. Basically an advertising agency which promotes companies’ ethical or responsible activities, to build a brand that people will believe and promote socially. Which explains why my ‘Daily Good’ email came with an advert for Pepsi. First thought: do they think the people who subscribe don’t have a fairly well-trained bullshit/greenwash radar? Bizarre. So I wrote to them. I asked what their ethical policy was and whether they had ever turned down a commission because of concerns with the broader ethical practices of the company. I’ll let you know when I get a response – I’m fully expecting it to be along the lines of ‘we believe in engaging with all sorts of companies and helping them to improve etc etc blah blah’. Which brings me to…
– ERM (Environmental Resource Management): Howexcited I was to read in GuardianEco that an ‘environmental consultancy’ had been bought for nearly £600m by a major trad firm (Charterhouse). Yay I thought, sustainability is big bucks biz! But on closer inspection, they look more like mercenaries and apologists – sorry, ‘risk controllers’ – for major global corps. Oil companies, mineral companies etc. You know, Rio Tinto and Shell and all those dudes that think Sustainability = sustaining their current business model, that a cute advert of “Janet, I used to be a protester but now I float up the Amazon helping indigenous people!” will convince anyone they are nice guys now, “all that Ogoni stuff and hanging poets was a mistake, we just didn’t really know it was to do with us, can we please just move on now, here’s some cash for that photography restrospective on the ice caps.” Argh. As one envorinmental guru put it “I always thought they seemed to have a bit more cash than honest means would gather.”
– Puma/Trucost: This one via Umair Haque of Harvard and LSE. Puma working with Trucost and PwC to price up environmental impacts of their operations AND those of their suppliers. Triple Bottom Line stuff. Cool. Is it OK to put a $$$ value on everything? Does that work? Bizarrely, I think yes it probably does, because $$$ is just a human construct, so it can mean whatever we want it to mean (money=trust, remember). Interested that they are working to includecenvironmental impacts first and social next. And htat htey’ve been doing this for ten years already. And are based in London (theres SOMETHING about London in all this, I dont know why but it seems to be a bit of a hotspot for ethical biz, according to several people who know about this stuff) (colonial guilt?) (shitty weather?) (irreverant attitude?) (cooperative movement?) (industrial revolution guilt?) (general love of guilt and the self-importance it offers, along with puritan/protestant self-flagellation?) Anyway I like this and although again I’m infuriated that it’s already been done, I’m not sure it goes as far as I do. And the question of ‘what currency to use in combining the triple bottom lines’ leads me to…
– Gates Foundation: whose rather brilliant motto is “ALL LIVES HAVE EQUAL VALUE”. I really love this. It’s pure as the UN Declaration on Human Rights. It cuts the crap. And it leads me to my previous post about ‘One Life Living’, where I argued that we can VERY EASILY define a quantifiable ethical position based on ‘wishing on others what I wish for myself’ (whilst allowing for different choice). Because ultimately, it’s about people, and life, not planets or metric tons of resources or CO2 or water or gold or $$$. It’s about more than that (ask me about bats) but the basis of any accounting or economic or value or ethical analysis has to be ‘what is the impact on others, of my actions, once I have internalised all my externalities, including those in the future or geographically far away, not to mention the uncalculable, the unpredictable, the unimaginable?’

The first rule of aid work is ‘Primum Non Nocere’ (‘First, Do No Harm’). (In fact it’s the ONLY rule, since it would be incredibly arrogant and naive to think that one could control or understand an emergency situation enough to plan for more.) Let’s take that as our First Rule of Business.

I know, I know. I need to stop faffing around and grab a napkin, and work out the One Life Living formula that I claim is so simple. The minute I do, some clever-dick like Guy or Umair will tweet up a link to someone who’s already done it, and done it really well, and put it in a sexy infographic. And I’ll huff and kick the skirtings again, but I’ll go to sleep that night with a little smile, knowing I’m right to be an optimist, and right to trust people. And when my girls jump on my bed shouting “Mummyyyyyyyy… are you awaaaaaake???” as the pale sun creeps in through the curtains the next morning, I’ll say “yes my darlings, and it’s a great day to be alive.”

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