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Published on October 7th, 2012 | by Ashley Sheets

The Ethical Pick and Mix

For those of us who run ethical, sustainable, resourceful businesses, we believe our ethics are at the heart of everything we do. It can be frustrating waiting for the rest of the world to catch up. Especially when we are bombarded with the superficial actions of big corporations greenwashing their less-than conscientious practices.

The Ethisphere Institute‘s  list of the “2011 Most Influential People in Business Ethics” applauds some well-deserving people: Nick Davies, the Guardian Journalist who covered the News of the World phone hacking saga and Carter Roberts, the President and CEO of World Wildlife Fund who led an innovative campaign against unsustainable beef production.

But Wal-Mart – ethical? Seriously?

It’s surprising to find Mike Duke, CEO of Wal-Mart (America’s second largest employer) at number 15. He earned his place by announcing Wal-Mart’s new healthy diet campaign, reducing the amount of fats and sugar in its packaged foods, and lowering the costs of the fruits and vegetables sold in the store. Yet, it says nothing about the source of the fruit and vegetables. Did Wal-Mart negotiate ethically with their third world suppliers? Currently, their website only has 30 fair trade products, which are either coffee, natural sweeteners or books. Although in November 2011, they announced their plans to offer 500 fair trade products by 2016. But with a history of driving down supplier’s prices, it will be interesting to see what ethical model they use.

Swoosh & Sweatshops

Another surprise was Phil Knight, the Co-Founder and Chairman of Nike at number 22 on the list. During 2011, Knight has used the company’s brand to “focus on environmentally-friendly and sustainable product design while maintaining the overall aesthetic appeal. Nike has done everything from creating 100% recycled sports jerseys to shoes created from used products.” Yet who are making these products? Does Nike ensure that their third world factory workers aren’t exploited? Judging from the Daily Mail article from July 2011, 10,000 female Indonesian workers at their Sukabumi (Jakarta) plant make 50 cents an hour and stated that supervisors frequently throw shoes at them, slap them in the face, kick them and call them dogs and pigs. What was Nike’s response? That there was little they could do about it. That it was the previous parent company’s (Converse) fault. Apparently the situation is complicated because the license holders usually subcontract the work to an unknown entity. Where is the ethical business responsibility in this? They might be designing recycled clothing but if the Indonesian worker is doing so under duress, does it make it an unethical product? Does one good ethical deed counteract another less ethical one?

Be The Change You Wish To See

Before we rip the Ethisphere list and the big boys to shreds, it’s time to examine our own business ethics first. Where does our ethical stance start and finish? Are we 100% ethical or do we play the ethical pick and mix when it suits us and our customers? Are we an ethical consumer sourcing sustainable paper, coffee and locally produced organic milk for meetings? Do we check our sub-contracts are handled in a manner that leaves exploitation at the door? What about our digital (SEO) marketing tactics? In fairness, the Ethisphere list is about individuals rather than companies, and it is people that change a company’s ethos over time.

So before we throw stones in glass houses, how are you driving the ethical agenda forward in your business? What changes can you make today?

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About the Author

Ashley is an American writer now making a life in the UK. She has a passion for exploring ethical actions and mindfulness in all things. Writing about her transcontinental observations and continually learning make her truly happy.



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