I am a director of the North East Initiative on Business Ethics. Hopefully the name is self explanatory but, just in case, we are working to try and position the region as a great place to do ethical business. In a way we are aiming to be a regional partner to the Institute of Business Ethics. We see good business ethics as a way for us to differentiate ourselves in a highly competitive global market, with real business benefits rather than just a nice to have.
NIBE has a number of initiatives underway, including events that promote good business ethics, awards for school and university students and we are developing a toolkit for organisations to ‘prove’ their ethical credibility. Each week we also publish a blog to engage better with our target audience. We have had some successes, notably in raising prompt payment issues working with the Federation of Small Businesses.
In our quest to raise awareness we have been talking to a number of organisations that are doing similar things. For the last few months now we have been sharing stories and ideas with Ethical Reading. Whilst these are early days in the relationship it is refreshing and comforting to know that there are like minded people out there. Both boards have met each other and we have started to work on some shared initiatives.
Obviously Ethical Reading is considering ethics in its widest sense while we are only focussed on business and the North East, but we share a Venn diagram and there is a sweet spot in the middle. There are others out there, all with slightly different aims and objectives and it is our intention over the coming months, to work with all of these groups where we can, to stitch together a patchwork quilt of interest.
This is the issue I want to consider in the rest of this blog.
These are difficult times, the COVID-19 pandemic has focussed everyone’s attention on survival and this regrettable has pushed ethics down some people’s agendas. Governments around the world are using the virus as a distraction, allowing them to implement policies that in more normal times would not be acceptable.
Some companies are doing the same, using the threat of the looming depression to cut working conditions, roll back on health and safety, refusing to pay outstanding bills, using the government’s furlough scheme to underpay workers and even reneging on their environmental responsibilities.
People have long memories though and a quick look at social media shows that such companies have left a trail of bad feelings. It would seem that hell hath no fury like a spurned customer. One company has so aggrieved its market that an app has been developed allowing people to find alternative businesses in the town you are in. At the last count it had nearly 20,000 downloads.
So now, even more than ever, is an opportunity for organisations such as NIBE and Ethical Reading to focus on its key messages. Whilst we need to recognise that some individuals have no apparent concern for business ethics while for others it is a significant driver. Gen-Z regularly cites ethics as an important factor for their purchase decision making.
Crystallised, a supporter of NIBE, is in the middle of a research project into consumer relationships with arts and culture organisations. Across all age groups 74% of people say it’s important or essential that organisations are ethical in what they say and how they act. Younger age groups say that how a company treats its staff would impact their decision to attend and event or buy a product. Older age groups say that the environmental policy of an organisation is in their top 3 decision making factors. 90% citizens said the environment was
important, with 41% of businesses looking to embed Sustainable Development Goals, though only 13% are aware of tools that are available. The report can be found here.
Businesses and individuals need support and direction and are looking to organisations such as us to steer their way through this complicated area. Ethics need to be seen in context and reference to a business’s stakeholders, both immediate and wider, as well as the society in which it exists. Action therefore needs to be taken at stakeholder level, with the general principle to make individual actions as ethical as possible.
What businesses don’t need is for the message from the ethics community to be mixed and differing organisations seen to be squabbling amongst themselves. That is why it is so important and exciting for us to be working with Ethical Reading and I look forward to a long and fruitful relationship.
You can find out more about NIBE here.
Phil Jackman is a director of North East Initiative on Business Ethics (NIBE).