We recently won the Observer’s Best Ethical Online Retailer award for the second year running, adding to our Best Ethical Business and Best Ethical Restaurant awards, so I’ve been asked to write about ethical business. If you just want the fruit and veg and can do without ranting and pontificating, you’d better turn the page now. Though I am proud of these awards, the term ‘ethical business’, for most large, publically quoted companies is an oxymoron.
Over the last few years I have been asked to talk at a number of conferences on ‘business ethics’, ‘values driven business’, ‘corporate social responsibility (CSR)’ and the pursuit of the ‘triple bottom line’; increasingly hideous expressions that have entered business speak. Few of us would take issue with the idea that business might have a purpose beyond maximising short term profit and most would support the consideration of environmental and social issues in decision making. Unfortunately, because actions are more often driven by the needs of brand protection than by a genuine desire to do anything useful, the effects are normally shallow, short term and depressingly ineffectual in bringing about meaningful change. After attending a few such conferences, I have decided it is more fun talking to the WI about slugs on their hostas than pouring my heart out to a roomful of accountants who just don’t get the idea that the starting point for change might be belief rather than profit.
Since Adam Smith published Wealth of Nations in 1776, the basis for business and capitalism has been an assumption that the decisions of rational individuals are driven by personal greed. We have surrendered to this assumption and the resulting competitive forces have shaped the world around us. In the 80s and more recently in the City, it was even declared that ‘greed was good’, since it drove us to an ever more feverish pursuit of wealth.
I am convinced that unfettered greed will destroy all that we hold dear on our planet and is incompatible with ethical business. I am certain that most people are motivated just as much by the desire to do something useful, to master skills, to be involved socially, to share, and that if we just had the confidence to acknowledge and incorporate these desires at work we would have some chance of business serving people, rather than people being slaves to business. Why is it that, when we step out of the door to go to work, we abandon these values and become slaves to greed? Greed has been supported in its all-pervasive hegemony by capitalism, which moves like an amoebic life form in the background; changing shape to move around, engulf, disparage, corrupt, co-opt and subsume anything that might resist it.
The reason for the rant is not a God-fearing, born again summer of Bible study. It is frustration with how public demands for change from business on social and environmental issues have produced nothing but smoke screens. The pervading argument that change will be driven by customer choice is ludicrous; customers just don’t have the time to do the research and become experts on competing claims, and as a result have been cynically fobbed off with emotive greenwash. Take bio fuels, and bio diesel in particular. It took an interested staff member a week of desk research in 2007 to conclude that (with a few exceptions) bio fuels were bad for the environment and liable to contribute to world hunger, and therefore had no place in an ethical business. So, given the resources of supermarkets and our government, why have bio fuels persisted as part of their environmental message for so long?
Perhaps we have been lucky at Riverford in that the support of our customers has given us the freedom to do business in our own way. But it is also having the confidence to question whether greed is synonymous with rationality. Initiatives start with a desire to be genuinely useful: to staff, to customers, to suppliers or to the environment. Of course most must be profitable and many are discarded, but this is very different from seeking profit and then, as a window-dressing afterthought, trying to appear useful. Until we find a way to displace greed as the main motivator in decision making, CSR will stand for a Complete Shame Really in my book. There endeth the rant.