Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Article: Ethical Trading

Despite appearances I don't like getting involved with politics, but the fact is that the political landscape affects us all, all the time. In a democracy it is a landscape that is shaped by our demands upon it. It is not helpful to merely criticise, nor is it helpful to stay silent when things that have been introduced then turn out to cause more difficulties. Just as no business can correct mistakes if it is not aware of them nor can any government. I wholeheartedly advocate not only highlighting the difficulties we all face but to use our imaginations to think up more viable solutions too. The one without the other is no solution at all. I certainly don't have the monopoly on solutions, no one does. Collectively I believe we can and do find them and always have and will. They we always need amending though, because progress never has had a reverse gear.

Over the past year I have encountered many organisation that are not wholly organised, or ethical in how they trade. If it their administration right, it slips up on it's customer service, marketing, budgeting or how it treats it's staff. While that could be true of any time - enterprises, like government reforms, take time to evolve - it seems more prevalent during an economic crisis. I strongly feel therefore that resolving these challenges requires time out to do so if we are to get on a better financial footing sooner rather than later. Hasty, knee-jerk emergency measures without due research, careful planning including contingencies and a thorough and detailed understanding of all the elements that are in play will only ever result in a deeper and more complex mess to unravel.

Information is the key to all matters, but in a time when goalposts seem to be whizzing about at hyperspeed it is perhaps no surprise to find so many enterprises struggling to function at all, even at a basic level. Take comfort though as throughout history, people will eventually slow down, calm down and stop acting rashly, it's just a question of when.

Do not assume that silly edicts will last - they never have. Do not assume they have been instigated from a sense of malice or cruelty - they seldom are. They arise mostly out of ignorance and fear due to there being little time to think clearly or collect information while the demand is for change. It's as if change of any kind will do, when in fact change at all could be the worst thing to do. Changes only help when they have been well planned and all the information has been collated to restructure a business and/or lead to government reforms that are sensible, logical and wise. I believe we can learn much from history, but what we learn and what ideas we come up with do need to be adapted to factors that we are encountering in the here and now to be effective and for the good.

From where I am sitting, the key change of our times is the growing demand for ethical trading. While it has always been in most people's psyche, it seems to have gathered momentum and a stronger voice in recent times - hence my interest and passion for social enterprises as it seems to yield more solutions than anything else on offer. That is not to say though that it has a monopoly on solutions though.

Why ethics is becoming more influential
In the UK in recent years we have had the scandal of cash for honours and politicians using their power for the betterment of themselves as individuals long before the economic crisis actually hit. It is not surprising therefore that many are still calling for parliamentary reforms to correct such things even now when such things have been reported to have been improved and fixed. The level of trust from individuals and businesses alike in any government has been seriously damaged by these things. It's led to all manner of petitions, protests and new movements starting. Add to mix the struggles that always ensue during a recession and it's no wonder at all that any government will have a hard time of it trying to effect sensible reforms while people are less inclined to trust and therefore talk to them.

What is true of our governments is also true of the world of business and industry. People are much more informed about scandals and corruption in those circles too thanks to the development of the internet and in particular social media and there is no going back on that now. With more information comes understanding of what is unjust, unfair and of how these things have come to happen but without full details again no viable solutions will be found. It has led to a growing sense of unrest and dissatisfaction with how things have been run.

Add to that how the Paralympics and the Time to Change campaigns etc have given disadvantaged people a platform to have a voice this year and it starts to become obvious why morals are becoming an element of social structure which will have to be factored in. I cannot see how such sections of our society can ever go back to being forgotten, overlooked or silenced now. For myself I think that's a positive step so long as we can avoid extremist reactions which could result in a reversal of discrimination against people who have not been so disadvantaged.

Ethics is complicated
We are all products of the societies in which we live. The smaller the circle of influence we move in the more insular we become and the less informed we are. Again the internet and media can help us to be informed but we can only ever make decisions based on the information we obtain. The maxim of 'we only find what we seek' holds true. People do not tend to believe anything that does not suit their own agenda, belief or ambitions unless they actively make an effort to understand and be considerate of their opposition to improve communication and negotiate. When it comes to social issues (which without exception helps form who we are and our opinions), we find the intensity of emotion at it's peak.

For example, is is right for governments to spend large amounts of money on trying to reform convicted criminals and less on supporting victims of crime? The hope is that by making such efforts there would be no victims as there would be no crime if they were wholly successful. Add in the fact that many people turn to crime because they are illiterate and the solution might seem simple at least for illiterate types. You might think it would it be right to say criminals are all mentally ill but by doing so you'd make it more difficult for victims of crime to be treated fairly and NOT be tarnished as criminals by mistake. Yes, we want to contain the worst offenders and punish them, but even some of them have become offenders because of what they have been subjected to. I often confuse people because I refuse to come down on one side of the fence or the other without access to all the facts.

A law has to apply to everyone regardless of circumstances but it should in my opinion have discretionary powers to allow for individual exceptions e.g. parking on double yellow lines to save someone's life, but you'd have to prove that that is precisely what you were doing. Ethics is extremely complicated, so it follows that governments and businesses alike have a hard time of it in attempting to be fair to all.

Gearing up in business and industry
Fortunately in business and industry, away from public and community services (including charities), ethics are far more easy to get right. No sweat shops, no excessive hours of work, rest and meal breaks, and a fair wage that reflects the value of worker's skills are all a good start. Paying staff promptly so they don't have to struggle with finances to get to work, allowing them time off to look after relatives in an emergency and providing good training to help both parties develop and succeed all help too.

It's my guess that those businesses and organisations who are already supportive of their staff AND the community will be ahead of the game for the future. Those who provide work for disabled and disadvantaged people, who support public services through giving a slice of their profits will be the most profitable by growing ever more popular and therefore successful. The one common factor all people respond to, is giving more to those who support them in their hour of need and this is something all employers would do well to invest in as their greatest asset will always be their own staff and the broader community, as working or not we are all a part of it. Employers could, and I think eventually will, change not just our current economics with regard to trading, but the political landscape too. For me, it's just a question of when, however, now seems to be as good a time as any to start trading ethically if you are not already doing so.

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