Monday, 2 May 2011

Environmental ethics in business

The Quakers and Business group held its Spring Gathering in Edinburgh (at Edinburgh Central Friends Meeting House) on 2 April, with the title Mainstreaming Ethical Futures - Inspiring Economies and Businesses for a Sustainable World. I am grateful to Eoin McCarthy for sending me this detail, which is reproduced here with permission.
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Elizabeth Redfern wrote this account of the day:

The title of the gathering was ‘Mainstreaming Ethical Futures - Inspiring Economies and Businesses for a Sustainable World’, and in his introduction Tim Phillips reflected that running businesses ethically was no longer seen as a radical thing to do, but was indeed mainstream and accepted, even if not universally practised. Tim highlighted how attitudes to business ethics have changed in the 12 year life of the Quakers and Business Group, and he hoped that perhaps our group’s messages had had an effect, at least within BYM and to an initial extent in the business world.

We were inspired by our three morning speakers who gave their experience of involvement in an ethical approach to business life, and how they see the real practical issues involved. A clear message was that it isn’t plain sailing, but needs hard work, compromises have to be made and not everything will be perfect. We were asked to consider both the local and global aspects of our decisions, and to ask ourselves how we can run and work in businesses or communities that work for all concerned and ultimately leave the world in a better condition. So, what did they say?

Small is Beautiful
Lucy Conway from the Isle of Eigg described what many would think of as an ideal opportunity for islanders to build an ethically based community. And by and large they have done that in the years the Eigg Heritage Trust have owned the island since 1997. Lucy described their work as a balance between many aspects, including between what they have and don’t have, and between focussing on themselves as islanders and on sustaining their environment. And then between themselves locally and globally in the world they live. A good example of this last balance is in making the island more appealing for tourists, with investment in attractions such as a new museum, and yet not allowing any holiday homes.

Lucy described another example which showed great pragmatism concerning the islands 83% renewable energy. Energy from hydro, wind and the sun are all locally sourced (with diesel generators as a back-up) and provide valuable jobs for the islanders. And yet these schemes need equipment from outside the island and imported skills and knowledge. The islanders are very aware of their energy usage and use a traffic light system to warn them when energy usage is high and they need to cut back. Lucy said that this shows how good the islanders were at adapting to their environment.

Lucy concluded by saying that their community wasn’t perfect but it worked as it had determination and stamina, and people have real responsibility to each other. They all see the balance between what is personal to them and to the island, and provide each other mutual support and respect: ‘Love where we live and respect it’.

Scale is Essential
A friend of the Quakers from the banking industry explained how we need to accept that the banking industry is global and that we gain from its reach and scale in a local context. And that after the serious and well publicised issues the industry has faced over the last few years, the industry is changing and no longer paying lip service to corporate social responsibility but accepting it as a fundamental and valuable consideration in its businesses. Our friend described how banks are now being questioned from inside as well as out, and at a senior level in language they understand, and that this is developing a better culture of debate and challenge.

The local aspect of banking provided by global banking players was illustrated in a number of examples, including where you can easily deposit money in say Edinburgh and take it out again in Malaga. Banks also help small business owners, such as people working in traditional industries such as agriculture and communities such as those on Eigg, to assess their risk in, for example, carrying out foreign cash exchanges when buying and selling goods.

Our friend described how banks regularly work together to provide funding for large international projects, and that this cooperation is seen as a very positive way to support these projects, and spread risk, and encourages open and transparent ways of working between the banks, which is also a positive way forward.

Small is Beautiful and Scale is Essential
Alastair McIntosh, a Quaker and the well know author of Hell and High Water, describes himself as an independent scholar, activist, writer, speaker and broadcaster: he’s certainly an interesting and captivating character. Alastair was our last speaker and did a fantastic job of linking much of the underlying messages from the previous speakers together and adding his own views on money. Alastair highlighted his own links to the Eigg community; he is a fellow islander from the Isle of Lewis. He was one of the four founding trustees of the Eigg Trust, a simple charitable trust which was the predecessor of the current Eigg Heritage Trust. This is the subject of Alastair’s book Soil and Soul. Alastair believes that the Eigg community shows us how we can think globally and act locally, and that they are a good example of cooperation, mutualisation and exchange.

Hubris was a word Alastair used to describe the banking industry; a dictionary definition for which is excessive pride, or perhaps we can now interpret as ‘pride before a fall’. We were reminded that money is a basic commodity and yet it also represents psychological power. We are born equal and we remain equal until someone accumulates money: The processes of borrowing and lending with interest removing the equality as money is used to make money. As Alastair pointed out money is not evil, but the love of it is, and that boredom and laziness often start the rot, when people see that they can make money without labour.

So what are the alternatives – where can we change attitudes? One suggestion made was that rates of interest, such as on savings, should equal the rate of inflation. Another was to buy goods that last. Alastair pointed to the buildings around us in Edinburgh City Centre, many of which were built centuries ago of local stone. The buildings have lasted, will last further, and the stone is re-usable. Modern buildings of glass and concrete are short termist and unsustainable. Alastair finished by saying that we needed to develop a sense of ‘proportionality and subsidiarity’, where we delegate to a lower level, or to a less centralised function.

Pasture-Fed Livestock Association
After lunch we heard some exiting news from QandB member John Meadley. John told us about the development of the farmer-based Pasture-fed Livestock Association, recently incorporated as a Community Interest Company and of which he is the honorary company secretary. With 60% of the UK under pasture, there are many benefits. Pasture is one of the cheapest sources of nutrients for ruminants; it has the capacity to absorb carbon equal to that of forests, with well-managed pasture-based livestock systems being potentially carbon neutral; pastures can replace soya bean as a source of protein, are largely decoupled from fossil fuels and experience less price volatility as pasture is not a commodity that can be traded. The association will make a public launch later in the year.

World Café – and then the Quakers and Business Lecture - 2011
Much of the afternoon was occupied by a very thought provoking World Café, where we considered a range of questions concerning ethical business and sustainable living. The afternoon was then finished with the inaugural Quakers and Business lecture given by Alastair McIntosh, with the title ‘Behind and Beyond the Pornography of Consumerism’. A video of the lecture is available online.

In Friendship, Elizabeth Redfern, Assistant Clerk - Quakers and Business Group
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Elizabeth writes: "Please watch it; Alastair is a very engaging and interesting speaker, and the lecture was absorbing."  I've watched the video, and I can wholeheartedly endorse this. Alastair is always an engaging speaker, and what he has to say is very worth hearing.
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In addition to this narrative account, there was a minute from the gathering:

37 Friends met at Edinburgh Quaker Meeting House on April 2nd for this event titled Mainstreaming Ethical Futures.

We seek to examine Friend's longstanding concern over our stewardship of the Earth. We are reminded to be patterns and examples, which does not require perfection, but needs us to work both globally and locally. The intent of the day was to examine the changes we can make in our own lives, and the contribution we, the collective group can make to the changes needed.

Lucy Conway from the Isle of Eigg community spoke about "Small is Beautiful". She showed us how a more sustainable way of living can be achieved by a dedicated and focused community who seek to reduce the problems of remoteness whilst treading lightly on the earth.

We have heard from our Friend in the banking sector that "scale can be useful and interconnectivity is essential". We are reminded of the input from many different sectors and countries in the technology and systems we all use, even on a small scale such as Eigg electric. There are economies of scale which can improve access to essentials for those in poverty, both rural and urban.

Alastair McIntosh spoke of the qualities of money. It is a love of money, not the money itself which is the root of evil. Money represents psychological power, lubricating the movement of goods and services. We were shown an analogy of a simple economy as demonstrated by a baby sitting circle where the currency is tokens. Through this we see that problems come with the subversion of the system, and abuses of power often come from boredom.

Value is usually considered over one generation, approximately 25 years. This encourages short term thought, and is reflected in life spans such as those of building materials. The impact on nature is overlooked, leading to its exploitation, human labour and the depreciation in quality of our childrens futures. We were warned that the business mentality driven by this hubris of growth leads to a loss of proportionality, its restoration being a cure alongside a sense of right ordering in matters of propriety.

Alastair upheld the Eigg community as an example of movement from the capitalist to the mutualist model and its relationship to our future in terms of scale and corporate responsibility.

In the afternoon session we met in groups to examine questions of scale, community and corporate responsibility, looking at our part in their futures.

On the matter of whether we should all live in cities, we were reminded of the low carbon footprints which can come with city life, the community forms both in rural and urban environments and the effect of technology on the opportunities available to residents of various locations.

When looking at small and large scale, and how they can support each other in reciprocal ways we acknowledge the interdependency of companies and communities of all scales, and how they both underpin and facilitate each other.

Examining if "interest" can be part of a sustainable future we questioned its place in a caring society where stewardship and humility are often lacking. There were concerns over the short term nature of the investment model and speculative interest, and a feeling that moderation was key.

Friends leaned towards a positive outcome when discussing if corporate responsibility was possible in a competitive economy. They presented a business case for acting ethically which relied on trust leading to increased profitability.

When asked how we start to mainstream ethical futures, it is firstly by being pattens and examples, and the need for everyone to have a sense of their own spirituality. The discussion focused on transnational corporations and their capacity for change as well as looking at how individuals can be released from the grips of capitalism coming to a freedom which allows them to do this.

In conclusion, Lucy Conway reminded us that we must adopt various approaches, try many things and live adventurously. Alastair McIntosh reminded us of our complicity in the current system, the place of the disempowered individual in the corporation and the powerlessness of the consumer. We were urged not to underestimate what it is possible to achieve within the system, and to remain aware of our interconnection. The foundation of community is love, and we must not loose sight of this, ensuring that the work of loving consciousness continues through the generations on this planet.

The day finished with the 2011 Quakers and Business Lecture "Behind and beyond the pornography of consumerism". Alastair McIntosh analysed the importance of spirituality and its place in preventing our destruction of this planet. To do this we must honour that of God in all things when making our choices.

Examining advertising messages we see how confidence and individuality can be undermined to increase profits whilst violating social and ecological environments. We must seek to restore the souls which have weakened due to these messages and the idolatrous consumerism to which they form the gateway. This consumerism is devoid of relations to the heart, rendering it pornographic and debilitating.

Working as a Lafarge sustainability stakeholder panel member Alastair is part of a credible process holding a dialogue between Lafarge and its stakeholders, aiding long term profitability, reducing emissions and improving relationships with workers and community.

We are all complicit and contradicted living in this imperfect world. It is up to us to decide on which side of the ethical watershed we want to stand. In order to do this we need spiritual courage. This cannot come from an ego level, but must come from that of God within.

Jo Poole
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Thanks to QandB for sharing this.

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