Ethical business and business ethics…

Social ROI blog updates us on the progress of the RED campaign, the big one that sells specially branded products (phones, credit cards etc) in order to raise money for AIDS charities. Apparently, it has only raised $11 million in the past year. Obviously that is a substantial amount of money, but given the companies/celebrities involved, it’s not really much at all. Particularly given the amount of money committed to international work on AIDS worldwide (in the many billions). I wonder how much might have been raised if all those companies and stars had donated 1% of their annual income instead of putting it on the consumer…..probably a little bit more.

Meanwhile, the private equity storm continues. As mentioned here previously, there are a few links with the social enterprise world, via Permira and Ronald Cohen/Apax (who founded Bridges Community Ventures/Unclaimed Assets), for example, so it will be interesting to see how it all pans out. Interesting because the primary issue seems to be around transparency and accountability to stakeholders, which is what social enterprise is, at least partly, all about. And because the backlash could be seen as part of a wider consumer and user-led movement demanding greater accountability and ethical backbone in companies. It could, of course, also be seen as old-fashioned union-led action against the paymasters. Take your pick…

Finally, it’s been difficult to open a paper without Sainsbury’s or M&S banging their fairtrade credentials drum…..and M&S has started up an ethical investment fund, which surely puts to bed any remaining questions about their commitment to this area. They clearly believe, simply, that this is the way forward…how many more will follow?

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Your Ethical Business + SSE

When we were undergoing our re-branding (the final part of which, the website, will be coming soon), we did discuss whether we should change our name. Why? Because people get misled by the word ‘School’, and assume we are an academic institution delivering taught content/programmes. When, as anyone who knows us will tell you, our focus is on action learning and personal support: learning by doing, and gaining confidence and self-esteem, as well as business skills and knowledge, to achieve personal and project development. But some people don’t get past the word ‘School’….

Anyway, as you will have noticed, we never got that far down the line of a name change, given the track record of the organisation, its reputation, and so forth (the agency who suggested the name ‘Spark’ will remain nameless; although if we ever diversify into soap powder, we may revisit). One of my former colleagues, Matthew Thomson (now at the London Community Recycling Network), suggested cunningly that we should change it from School FOR Social Entrepreneurs to School OF Social Entrepreneurs, making ‘school’ the collective noun for social entrepreneurs, like…er…whales. And making clear that we are representative as well as service-driven.

Why am I burbling on about all this? Because I was asked to give feedback about a new book, Your Ethical Business, which is being launched in March. It aims to be "a ‘how to’  handbook covering everything you need to know about starting and succeeding in an ethical enterprise" and it’s pretty good: clear, coherent, and covering all the main areas. But, as you may have already guessed from the above, we are mentioned only as delivering ‘academic programmes’ and bracketed with accredited university courses, rather than listed as a deliver of business support in the (otherwise very good) resources directory. Very frustrating and, given that all our literature/website makes clear that our ethos/aproach is the exact OPPOSITE of an academic programme, I can only assume it is because we are called ‘School’.

Rant over. The book is a good introduction to the field, and worth adding to your reference library, although it does make out that it’s all rather easier than is really the case. I would have put a few more lines in about the need for personal support, support networks, work-life balance and so forth which we have seen emerge as key issues for social entrepreneurs over the years. The only other comment I would give is that, as someone said to me recently, entrepreneurs (of all types) have a drive and spirit that can’t be gained from a book and, if they’re a true entrepreneur, they probably won’t have time to read it anyway…..

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Global Cool…but not in school

Steve Bridger heralds the arrival of Global-Cool over on his nfp2.0 blog. I’m not sure how to describe it really. The website is kind of celebrity offsets meets change-the-world-in-simple-ways meets ecotainment. Or something. Here’s the (very well-designed) site for you to make up your own mind. It’s a pretty clear and good addition to what’s out there already, although nothing groundbreaking as far as I can make out. There may be those who want the Scissor Sisters to tell them to turn their lights off, and if it reaches more people in a clear and entertaining way, then all power to them. Of course, there may also be those who question why, from a £20 donation, £3 goes to Global Cool Productions Ltd and £1 on administration. That’s 20% of your donation not going to alternative energy/energy-reducing projects…..(the admin’s fair enough, and the production company will “put on more carbon-neutral shows and make more programmes to create a bigger noise to turn more people into planet-savers”).

[Incidentally, it’s founded by the guy who founded Future Forests as it was then called….]

I’m not going to bang on about whether it’s ethical to offset or not; you can read plenty of stuff about that in every paper under the sun. But it also seems to me to be connected to something else Steve mentions in his article: that the UK government are going to distribute a copy of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth documentary to every school in the country. Now, of course it is important that children are educated about the challenge of global warming and climate change; and of course it is important that this is communicated in effective ways. But is this really necessary? Aren’t kids, in fact, the one group of society that DO fully understand, having had it drilled into them consistently at school in geography, science etc….? Several articles recently have detailed how children have started campaigning at home, prompting one parent to write in to a school saying, “Can you please inform Paul that it is allowed to have the light on to read at home?” Does that child really need to watch Al Gore?

The fact is that sending out DVDs is just information provision; but the point has already tipped: you can’t move for environmental debate, recycling schemes, offsetting of flights, healthy organic food, and so on. It’s not information and promotion of the cause that is needed, surely; it is action and, probably, legislation. How about ministers committing to a set (collective) number of flights per year? How many ministers rent a plane everyday around the States? How about taxing companies who won’t match M&S zero carbon initiative? What about the Global Cool people giving £19 of the £20 to carbon reduction, instead of more publicity and programmes? What a better example it might set for them to walk the walk, rather than talk the talk. The point is that it is not easy (we have these debates in this organisation as well), but has to be addressed. David Miliband is strong in the department, communicates and debates well, and has a lot of good ideas (individual carbon quotas etc.) but it would be great to see some of them, challenging as they are, put into action.

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Monday round-up: ethics, business and Davos

Few things to round-up this morning:

– The British Library’s Business and IP Centre is hosting an event this evening entitled "Ethical Entrepreneurs", featuring John Bird (who featured in the Sunday papers commenting on Ruth Turner) and  one of the Innocent founders Richard Reed amongst others; will be webcast at a future date

Xigi.net (pronounced Ziggy, and which is kind of mapping the social investment world online) points to a Business Week article called Beyond the Green Corporation, which has nothing really new ("Imagine a world in which eco-friendly and socially
responsible practices actually help a company’s bottom line. It’s
closer than you think"…er, yes) but good detail on the responses and actions of  the corporate and investment worlds

– Jim Fruchterman (of Benetech fame) is going to Davos….on behalf of social entrepreneurs everywhere

– Another blockbuster social entrepreneur, Victoria Hale of One World Health, is interviewed for 15 minutes on the Global Envision site; if you want to know more about pharmaceuticals, ethics and drug development, this is a good read (originally in Stanford Social Innovation Review)

– A new guide from has just been launched to provide practical guidance to
those wanting to take a Social Firm out of a council or NHS Trust; see the press release on Social Firms UK

– And, last but by no means least, it is Voice 07 on Wednesday in Manchester: we hope to be blogging from there on the day….

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(Eco) Marks and Spencers: first of many?

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Obviously the big CSR news this week has been M&S’ announcement of a significant and, one has to say, pretty substantial plan to reduce their environmental impact. As Xpress Digest reported:

"UK retail giant Marks and Spencer has this week revealed details of a
massive new environmental policy that is set to feature in every area
of its business and ramp up pressure on high-street rivals to go green.
The wide-ranging £200m ‘eco plan’ covers issues such as ethical supply,
renewable energy use, waste reduction and sustainability. Under the
100-point plan, M&S aims to become carbon neutral, eliminate use of
landfill, extend sustainable sourcing, set new standards in ethical
trading and promote healthy living to customers and staff by 2012. The
voluntary programme represents one of the biggest corporate social
responsibility commitments in UK history, and signifies a clear
response to environmental problems."

It’s certainly impressive: you can’t help but view it as a massive green gauntlet being thrown down to its high street rivals…which can only be a good thing, particularly as it comes on the back of such a strong economic recovery (and therefore even more difficult for rivals to ignore). Clearly, it isn’t a cure-all solution, but (as the press release makes clear) there is some really good stuff in there. I’m not talking about the bottles-to-Tshirts stuff (which got a lot of the headlines)…more impressive to me was the commitment to label everything they import by air. And being pragmatic and honest about it: basically saying, "we’re not going to stop importing food by air, but we are going to make it clear(er) to our customers to allow them to choose".

Quite an achievement (endorsed by Greenpeace and WWF!), and it will be interesting to see who follows in their wake…but M&S have certainly got a big leap/advantage from simply being the first to do so on this scale.

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