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November 23, 2000 Research proves ethics is good business



by Barbara Black

Business should not be amoral, concerned only with the bottom line. In the new era of globalization, business ethics is more important than ever, according to Professor Fred Bird.

The veteran ethicist, based in Concordia’s Religion Department, is at the head of a multidisciplinary, multicultural network of more than two dozen scholars who are examining the behaviour of companies of all sizes around the world, particularly among companies operating in developing countries, or in poor regions of developed countries.

They want to know everything — how they treat their employees, from the state of the washrooms to their salaries and benefits; how they regard cultural difference; how they react to corruption; how they treat the land, air and water; what training and technology transfer they leave behind them, if any.

Their study is called Managing International Businesses in Developing Areas. It is funded by a relatively modest SSHRC strategic grant, and includes scholars from Concordia and McGill, as well as from Santa Clara University (California), Concordia College (Minnesota), Baldwin Wallace College (Ohio), the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa) and INSAE (Costa Rica), Putra University, (Malaysia), the University of Ghana, Makerere University (Uganda), the North-South Institute in Ottawa, the University of Hanover, and the Prince of Wales Business Leaders Forum in the U.K.

Most of the 18 senior participants got together at Concordia for three days in December to compare their findings so far. The titles alone show how far-reaching this work can be. It ranges from the general — “International Corporate Codes of Conduct” — to the specific — “Environmental Policy of a Pulp and Paper Mill in Mexico” and “Options Facing Talisman in Sudan and Shell in Nigeria.”

The project builds on studies Bird has done with Manny Velasquez, of Santa Clara University, in California, who, some 25 years ago, wrote a best-selling book on business ethics that is now in its fifth edition.

Since those days, Bird said with a laugh, business ethics has become “an industry.” Pressure is building from citizens worried about the erosion of national boundaries, the build-up of corporate clout, and the threat of environmental breakdown, and sensitive capitalists — some of them, at any rate — are responding.

The scholars involved in this study are not knocking capitalism per se. Indeed, as Bird says, a successful business is often of great benefit to a deprived region.

“We’re talking about global responsibility, but we’re putting a sharp focus on poverty,” Bird said at the research workshop. “And we’re not interested in evaluating companies’ ethics as much as learning from their behaviour, good and bad.”

They must build a matrix, or framework, for this massive undertaking, so that disparate studies in various parts of the world can be compared and contrasted in a coherent way. However, Bird wants the study to be engaging, even inspiring, and he is encouraging his researchers to develop a strong narrative sense.

The project is expected to produce a volume of instructional case studies, a volume of scholarly essays, a work meant for the public, a number of doctoral and Master’s theses, and a number of conference presentations.