01.08.2008

A Guiding Star

What constitutes an ethical life? Aristotle, Rawls,Mills and Kant aren't the only great minds to have ponderedthe question. And yet we still don't have a fail-proofmanual on how to live well.

In June this year, the Vatican reviewed the Ten Commandmentsand found them somewhat lacking. The addition of a Decaloguefor the Environment showed us that sometimes, even God'scommandments - those rules written in stone and ratifiedby the Bible - need questioning and re-interpretationin context. Now, as the corporation replaces religionand government as the most powerful public institutionof our time (as is widely believed), are business ethicsalso facing increased scrutiny and revision?

Let's rewind 20 years. It's the middle of the greed-is-gooddecade, the 1980s. The corporation is still Milton Freidman'sbaby, unfettered and answerable only to market forcesand profit margins. When Anita Roddick emerges as TheBody Shop's activist corporate leader, people are alittle nervous...and suspicious.

At World Trade Organisation meetings, she's not insidewith the suits, she's out on the street screaming withthe protestors. The international company she headsup claims to defend human rights, save the whales, recycleplastic and condemn animal testing. And in the late1980s and early '90s, as share prices soared, The BodyShop continued to maintain a circle of regard, not onlyfor its shareholders, but for other cultures, otherspecies and the planet as a whole.

Anita Roddick passed away late last year. I had theprivilege, however, of seeing her speak at Edith CowanUniversity in Western Australia, years ago. She wasall long earrings and boots, with a ballsy, hell-raisingvocabulary. She had travelled the globe on the wingsof ideology. Yes, Dame Roddick exchanged beauty secretswith the women of Sri Lanka and listened to those peoplefacing hardship in places like Nigeria and Brazil. Importantly,she looked the people she traded with in the eye. Shespoke of an emotionally honest fair trade, non-exploitativelabour practices, safe working environments and payequality.

Ethics academic Paul Lester claims that sound ethicsmean making decisions that "can be justified toall who disagree" (1). And justifying her positionwas something Anita Roddick did, with enthusiasm. Inher book Business as Unusual she says: "Microsoftcould 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 everythingspent by British consumers goes into the coffers ofjust 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 thanbusiness. It is more important than ever before forbusiness to assume a moral leadership in society."(2)

In retrospect, it seems strange that Anita Roddickspent 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, thesenior managers of Shell Oil or the many other corporationswho roamed the globe procuring low wages and lax environmentalregulations. I suppose they had the status quo on theirside. Roddick did not.

Roddick faced a culture that was not convinced businesscould handle planet-embracing ethics. Anyone who triedwas therefore suspicious. In the 1990s, The Body Shop'smain target consumer group were those young Gen-Xerswith their signature cynicism. They read Naomi Klein'sNo Logo and saw Body Shop activism as "marketing".

Soon enough, American journalist Jon Entine exposedlayers 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 hersocial vision or merely exploit it."(3)

But still, exploiting and marketing a social visionis always going to be better than not having one atall. In recent years, there's been a flourishing ofbusinesses founded on ethical principles. The GreenBizCafé website showcases the best of corporatecitizenship, some of it truly inspiring. The world'ssecond largest pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline,for example - a company that has spent a fortune researchingcancer - has decided to make information available tothe research community for free.

"There have always been good and 'not so good'business people - this hasn't changed," Mary Hendriksof the GreenBiz Café, Sydney says. "Whathas changed is our concept of good. Business peoplenow consider the global impact of products and services,and need to be aware of the fairness of where they comefrom and where they are disposed. Even though it's justbeginning, there's a new awareness emerging in the commercialworld, that thinking globally and responsibly is goodethical practice in business."

As a consumer, it's easy to love Australian EthicalInvestments (I'd rather they have my money than thebig four banks), shops like Ethical Threads (sweatshop-freedesigns and sustainably grown fabrics), the Fair GoTrading and Source Organic Foods (Perth's cafe thatcomposts).

Even Starbucks and McDonalds, the most hard hearted,profit motivated and widely criticised of corporations,have made a recent switch to Fair Trade certified coffeewithout provoking too much knee jerk cynicism (...althoughI still personally cringe at McDonalds' new "sustainabilitylook" of muted greens and browns).

In January this year, I met with architect Andrew Webb,co-director of a Sunshine Coast architecture firm, WDArchitects. He says his company takes their ethicalmandate...well, as far as they can take it. And I soonrealise he's quite serious about that. Andrew and hisbusiness partner Chris Duffy's office may not be aseco-stylish as the McDonalds Café, but theircrockery and furniture really is the most environmentally-friendlythat money can buy - just purchased from a secondhandshop down the road.

I take a look around the office. The kitchen is stockedwith organic, locally sourced tea, Fair Trade coffeeand biodegradable cleaning products. Nothing new aboutthat. 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 Investmentsuperannuation funds, and business cards made with vegetable-basedinks on recycled paper. The company mural is paintedwith non-toxic paint. PVC-based stationery productsare avoided, and Tim Tams strictly prohibited (the biscuitsuse palm oil, not very orangutan friendly).

The same level of thought and care extends to WD Architects'buildings - from the projects they accept (they designedthe first straw bale wildlife hospital for WildlifeWarriors), to every detail of the materials they specifyfor building.

"Deformed shank nails are better," Andrewsays. That's one product he's sure about choosing andusing. But when sourcing materials for an entire hospital,house or hotel there are also taps, light switches,paints, door handles, adhesives and sealants to makeethically informed decisions about.

Which product has the least environmental impact? Doesit need to be transported a great distance? Is it manufacturedin humane conditions? Is it manageable for buildersto work with? Does it have an impact on human or ecologicalhealth? Can it be recycled or disassembled and reusedin future?

"There's no perfect answer, but some answers arebetter than others," Andrew says. "Aluminiumis light to transport, and cheap to use, but such ahuge amount of energy goes into making it, so we avoidit." Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) could be ahealth hazard for cabinetmakers: "The dust particlesare toxic and too fine for the nose to filter out. Ifthis becomes a crisis similar to asbestos, who is responsible?"WD Architects use a low-VOC (volatile organic compound)particleboard instead.

There are very few perfect materials. "Timberfor example. Pine plantations can be eco-friendly, unlessa local habitat has been destroyed for it. Engineeredtimbers are good, but the glues in them give off toxicgas. And laminate is good environmentally, but we haveto look at its longevity, the adhesives needed and adaptabilityfor future generations," Andrew says.

Weighing the value of materials against ethical standardsis complex enough. Then factor in clients' objectives,Australian building regulations and the ability of thebuilding industry to work with alternative materials."Builders have liability issues, so to suggestan unknown is sometimes a big ask," Andrew says."There's also the profitability of just doing whatthey know. That's a big reason for the general inertiain the building industry."

Practising ethics in conditions of constraint and compromiseis part of the deal, for architects, for anyone. ButAndrew isn't discouraged. Years ago, after his firstsolo project designing a school in Northern India, heremembers Carleton University School of Architectureguest professor Essy Baniassad saying, "You haveto have a Northern Star to guide you; it doesn't meanyou will reach it."

It's an apt metaphor for working ethically in an imperfectworld. There's no simple rulebook. And whether you'rea company or an individual, giving an ethical mandatereal meaning requires a consistent effort to investigateand really engage with complexity.

There's always so much to learn, Andrew says. "I'vehad an amazing run of clients. Some have done lots ofresearch about the best composting toilet or solar hotwater 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 tomake enough profit to survive, full stop. Public interest,fairness, humaneness, and stewardship of the planetweren't even part of business consciousness. The conceptof a "good corporate citizen" was for radicalsand even corporate contributions to charity were illegal.

Thirty years ago, GreenBiz's Mary Hendriks explains,business values were mostly about responsibility foryour product and caring for the community, perhaps viasponsorship of sport or community activities. "However,there was only minimal understanding of the way productswere produced, and even less of the impact of usingand disposing those products."

The Body Shop is not without flaws. But in the 1980s,in a high profile way, Anita Roddick managed to at leastexpand the concept of business practice, to introduceplanet embracing ethics, and to put this ambition andthis guiding star on the horizon for all to see.

Since then business leaders and consumers have learnta bit of cunning, a bit of cynicism (and the art ofgreen washing), and have certainly learnt to pay lipservice to the idea of the triple bottom line. But whatmatters is that we're now comfortable mixing commercialinterest and ethical practice, we're beginning to expectit, and we might even get better at it.

There are now not-for-profit organisations like StJames Ethics Centre, created in 1988, devoted to nuttingout what ethical management means. For businesses, theyprovide ethics consulting and counselling services,forums and symposiums, ethics leadership development,business training and even accreditation.

Things can change quickly. As the economy moves froman industrial model to a networked model, products are,more and more, branded and sold in communities of sharedideals. This means, in the Information Age, the principleas well as the product is for sale. And for some consumersand some businesses, that's always going to be worthpaying for.

References:
1. Lester, P 1999, 'Chapter Three: Finding a PhilosophicalPerspective', Photojournalism An Ethical Approach, RetrievedSeptember 3, 2007, from http://commfaculty.fullerton.edu/lester/writings/chapter3.html
2. Roddick, A 2000, Business as Unusual, Harper Collins,London.
3. Entine, J September 21 2007, The Myth of the GreenQueen, National Post, Canada

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