Volume 17 Number 4
Capitalising on Values
01 August 2004

Is it possible for a successful business to remain truly ethical? Steven Greisdorf finds some practical advice in a recent book that promotes an alternative capitalism.

THERE IS NO QUESTION that today’s corporate environment is challenging. Managing the expectations of stakeholders—from customers to suppliers, from the community to the investor—is a juggling act. Pleasing all of the people all of the time is impossible. Even pleasing some of the people some of the time is difficult. In the midst of these managerial challenges come the legal and regulatory dictates that burst upon the scene following recent high profile corporate scandals and ethical lapses. Add to that the plethora of corporate social responsibility guidelines and non-governmental watchdog organizations—not to mention protestors and activists—and it is a wonder that any business gets done at all.

In his book, Moral Capitalism: reconciling private interest with the public good, Stephen Young presents a workable model for practising ethical business that he believes ‘can restore popular confidence’ and ‘create wealth for all’. A scholarly piece of writing, the book is part academic textbook, part philosophical treatise, and part game plan. Young has successfully woven together ancient religious texts, economic theory, and the practicalities associated with doing business in today’s environment to produce a comprehensive framework for principlebased corporate behaviour.

Currently serving as Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table (CRT) Young is well qualified in his subject matter. The CRT is an international group of senior business people who are committed to improving relationships not just within businesses, but between businesses, and in particular those operating across borders.

The group has been meeting since 1986 to discuss ways in which relationships between labour and management might be improved. Honest conversations between presidents, chief executives, and board chairmen from America, Europe, and Japan helped ease tensions between these industrial superpowers, then on the brink of trade wars. Conversations continued into the 1990s during which time several key concepts regarding the interrelationship between business and the global community began to crystallize.

This on-going dialogue led to the release in 1994 of the Caux Round Table’s Principles for Business. They offer a framework for organizations seeking to operate with integrity in a climate fraught with distrust. Over the last ten years they have found their way into board rooms and business schools across the globe, and now claim to be the most widely disseminated document of their kind.

While the Principles themselves are rather intuitive, the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings have been missing. Young has stepped into this gap, moving meticulously through each section of the CRT’s Principles, explaining and defending their inclusion in the document. Where important, he backs up his explanations with practical examples.

His diverse range of experiences, including time spent as a development worker, an academic, and a lawyer, are all in evidence as the CRT’s Principles for Business come alive, not just as a thoughtful piece of writing, but as a real-world, practical tool.

Of particular value to the reader and to the practitioner is the section at the end of each chapter that provides for a company self-assessment. By moving chapter by chapter through the book, it is possible to develop a clear sense of how closely one’s business is conforming to the CRT Principles.

The final chapter of the book— Principled Business Leadership: stepping up to the challenge of moral capitalism —is perhaps the most valuable. Young places the emphasis for implementing a system based on moral capitalism squarely on the principled business leader. In the absence of people committed to acting with integrity, all of the laws and guidelines that have exploded onto the corporate scene are meaningless. As Young notes, ‘laws and market mechanisms can always be outmanoeuvered by more clever competitors playing on the innate greed and fear of others’.

Young has done the business world a great service by providing us with both the philosophical and practical underpinnings of the Caux Round Table’s Principles for Business. The implementation is now in the hands of the business person who commits him or herself to the awesome task of bringing about a moral capitalism.

Moral Capitalism: reconciling private interest with the public good’ by Stephen Young, Berret-Koehler Publishers, ISBN: 1576752577