January 13, 2014

Heartlines

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By Garth Japhet

 

Ethical business good businessWhen we talk values, there is an automatic assumption that these are defined, practiced and promoted by individuals. It is true that values are best embodied by individuals in everyday practice but they are given traction by a value system conducive to a collective embrace of that which is right.

 

When we look at South Africans values around money, we need only look at the environment in which these values are promoted. It is a culture in which advertising tells us that what we wear, drive, drink and use defines us. It is a business ecosystem that praises profit at any cost. It is system that defines us not by what we do but by what we have.

 

And in this environment, we applaud or short-term gains and turn a blind eye to the growing problem – paying lip service to curbing its impact. That impact, is debt.

 

According to the National Credit Regulator, about 20-million South Africans were credit consumers and at least half of them (9,76-million) had bad records. This is an increase of the 18-million credit active consumers (8,59-million with impaired records) of June 2010.

 

Clearly more of us are spending more money we do not have than ever before – despite a clampdown on easy credit.

 

This already is a dangerous brew in a country rife with inequality and a materialist world view. But add to it issues like Garnishee orders that allow companies to claim their repayments from their debtors salaries and you get a miners strike that culminates in Marikana.

 

Miners are the more indebted wtih 13% its workers registering garnishee orders. But, it is even more that one out of 10 public sector worker – 12% – have garnishee orders against their salaries, according to a University of Pretoria report.

 

Measures to ease the burden of over-indebtedness does not attack the root courses: the values we ascribe to money and the environment that promotes over-consumption and easy credit.

 

Research has shown that consumers have a high level of financial literacy. Clearly our challenge is not to draw up a budget. Our challenge is to rethink what we value and how we ensure that what we value is reflected in our spending patterns.

 

But there is a bigger challenge to business. The challenge is to acknowledge that some practices might not break the law but undermine the good of society.

 

Globally, business is recognising the business value of being a good corporate citizen. The  evidence is still uncertain but as consumers become more savvy about how they spend their money, their choices are looking at what impact their money will have. We don’t just want to buy a good – our spending reflects our values and we want to support companies that reflect those values too.

 

Once consumers are not just buying on price, it is clear that they want their money to go good – whether it is supporting small businesses rather than large corporates or checking the food labels to ensure they are not buying to products that harm either themselves or the environment.

 

Every one has a responsbility for their deicisions but the greater your privilege, the greater the responsiblity. That is why we demand more of our leaders, big business, unions and civil society.

 

The place to start is to be more ethical and social in our business practices and support opportunities to make a difference.

 

The last decade has seen the excess of big business: Ehron, the global financial crisis and, closer to home, the collusion by the construction cartel in building the World Cup stadia.

 

Its not remiss to ask if we have learned anything from these effects of bad business or – more pointedly – if doing good can be good for business.

 

Good corporate citizenship is more than CSI. It is more than 67 minutes for staff to volunteer on Madiba’s birthday or the funds assigned to local charities. Good corporate citizenship asks companies to be mindful of the values they promote; the practice they support and the overall impact they have on the communities in which they operate.

 

People, profit and planet is an easy catch phrase but business practices that contradict social initiatives shoudl not be tolerated. A company promoting indebtedness through its practices should not be forgiven for distributed financial literacy pamphlets. What, we should ask, is the impact of their business practices – and not their social initiatives – on the communities they serve.

 

Social is more than a business model: it is a business imperative which cannot be dependent solely on business profit. This challenges to business sector to have corporate values that support a health society and therefore a healthy customer base. It means business needs to have a longer view of profit.

 

It calls for a business leadership that understands that just because it is legal does not mean it is ethical. It calls for a business leadership that wants to contribute in a meaningful way. It calls for a business leadership willing to challenge the status quo.

 

* This article was first published in The Star Africa Edition on 9 January 2014. It is part of a series produced to support the Heartlines Values & Money campaign to encourage South Africans to think about how they earn, spend, save, borrow and give away their money.

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