Volume 14 Number 6
The Quest for Principled Business
01 December 2001

Bernard Margueritte, a French journalist living in Poland and President of the International Communications Forum, reflects on what he heard at a recent meeting of business leaders.

On the day of the terrorist attacks on America I was sitting as an observer at the final day of a London session of the Caux Round Table (CRT) for members of the business and banking communities and NGOs. I had already been impressed by the quality of the discussions and the genuine concern for humankind expressed by many. But the atrocities added a new dimension and provided an element of tension and compassion to the debate.

On 10 September, at the beginning of the conference, Winston Wallin, chairman emeritus of Medtronic in Minneapolis and leader of the CRT, said that we could not accept a world in which ‘half of the six billion people live on less than two dollars per day’. He added, in a sentence that was tragically soon to appear prophetic, ‘It is not only a moral dilemma to have so many people on this planet living in poverty and receiving very little assistance from the wealthy, but it may ultimately turn out to be dangerous and destabilizing.’

In a similar vein, Charito Kruvant, another American company chairperson, pointed out that ‘business is changing, becoming more responsible. But the time has come to go further. We should engage in dialogue with NGOs and act to reduce the ever growing inequalities in the world.’ She also warned: ‘If we don’t, we will have tragedies.’

The final day was one of intense emotion, particularly for our American colleagues. I will never forget how the leaders of major corporations, in spite of their visible pain, said, in essence: ‘This tragedy confirms that we have to fight for a better world, where individual people are respected, where the inequalities are not so great.’ They all agreed that not only is there no conflict between ethics and efficiency, but that if we are not ethical we will have a world in chaos.

Charles Denny, former CEO of ADC Telecommunications, emphasized that business had a responsibility to be more than just a business. Wallin said that business had the means to fight poverty, with some $30 trillion to invest even after the stock market ‘crisis’. But this would not work if it was not done ethically. Corruption could not be tolerated.

Raymond Baker, from the Center for International Policy in Washington DC, said that there was roughly $1 trillion of laundered money in the world, and that for every dollar of foreign aid given to developing countries, ten dollars of dirty money were going out. Laundering dirty money was particularly easy in the US where 11 resolutions designed to fight against corruption had died in the Congress Banking Committee. Obviously, the conviction prevailed in some business and banking circles that money laundering could be profitable. Now however things may have changed. Discovering that money laundering is also serving terrorism, President Bush has pushed for the adoption of measures to fight it.

Jeroen van der Veer, Group Managing Director of the Royal Dutch/Shell group, spoke about the ‘Shell general business principles’ that have guided his company for the last few years. Investment decisions were not made on purely economic grounds but took into account environmental and social considerations, he said. The consequences included creating a climate of respect for everyone working in the company; taking care of the environment; and rejecting corruption. Last year Shell had terminated 106 contracts and pulled out of two joint ventures because of partners’ unethical conduct.

He added that this made good business sense. The success of the corporation would ultimately depend on its image and respectability. Van der Veer said that already ‘young, bright people’ were trying hard to join his company. ‘Ethical and social concerns are obviously important to them.’ He added: ‘The message is getting through that “principled business means profitable business”.’

Recently the well-known Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski argued that the West had built an amoral world, a world of entertainment and poverty. ‘Our entertainment and pleasure is accompanied by an increasingly divided world.’ In this situation, ‘using the language of terror and hatred is to play with the detonator on a barrel of gunpowder’.

I would agree with Kapuscinski that the time for self-criticism is long overdue. We should take, as he pointed out, ‘another look at the functioning of our economy and our media and at our attitude towards the Third World, towards the problems of poverty and exclusion’. Indeed, are we so sure that those who built or accepted this pseudo- civilization of hedonism, materialism, consumerism and deep social inequalities do not share in the guilt for the dreadful events of 11 September?

It is therefore extremely important that more and more people in the world, and maybe particularly among the business community, understand that the only way to combat terrorism is to build together a civilization of love, based upon respect for the dignity of the human person and social justice. It was comforting to see that the people of the CRT are in the forefront in this fight for the common good and for a better world for all.
Bernard Margueritte

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