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  • Sunday, May 01, 2005


    Is Ethical Business an Oxymoron?

    I worry about work. I worry about what work I do to support myself. I worry about the effect of my work on the environment and on the lower income people in this country. I worry about the actions of companies my work sustains and nourishes. I worry about the general social and economic climate my work creates and supports.

    Perhaps this is a luxury. I do not have children. (Do dogs count?) I have relatively low financial needs. My spending on "pleasure" items is mostly for books and magazines with some music thrown in. I've played with the idea of writing out my process of eliminating of jobs and careers because of their environmental or social impact. That's rather depressing though, a effort of elimination on a massive scale rather like the devout Jains who wear masks and sweep the ground ahead of them to avoid killing insects.

    This brings me to The Truth About Ethical Investing by Paul Hawkin. He examines a few of the companies who made a recent list of the "100 Most Sustainable Companies in the World." In the words of the press release, these were the "one hundred companies most open to leading the way to a more sustainable world."

    Moving from A to B is Bristol-Myers Squibb, under investigation by the SEC for violating the FCPA in Germany following prosecutorial action there. The company was fined $150 million last year by the SEC for cooking its books; it paid $135 million in claims and settled with the Federal Trade Commission on charges that it conspired to prevent the cancer drug Taxol (which was developed by NIH and U.S. taxpayers) from becoming generic after patent expiration, costing women with breast cancer hundreds of millions of dollars (Bristol-Myers Squibb was charging $6.09 per milligram compared to foreign generic producers charging $.07 per milligram). It also paid a $535 million settlement to 29 states to settle litigation over whether it had illegally blocked generic production of BuSpar; and Bristol-Myers Squibb joined with other big pharmaceutical companies in lobbying for a provision in the new Medicare regulations prohibiting the U.S. government from negotiating with drug companies on bulk purchase discounts for drugs, what used to be called price-fixing.

    Included on the list of the 100 most sustainable companies were corporations in oil, gas, beer, mining, utilities, defense, soda pop, candy and hard liquor ("Did you know 43 percent of the milk produced in Ireland goes into Bailey's Irish Cream," brags Diageo, which also makes Smirnoff, Johnny Walker, Tanqueray, Cuervo and J&B). Three of the 100 companies have a business model that directly addresses the well-being of the future of the planet: Vestas and Gamesa, both manufacturers of wind turbines, and Whole Foods. There was no explanation at the time of the press release as to why these 100 were the most sustainable companies, or what sustainability means, or which criteria were applied.

    Sustainability specifically means living within carrying capacity of the planet, which is to say living on current solar income. Easy to say, difficult to do, and admittedly no company of any scale is doing it. The question is whether they are moving toward or away from it.

    There are companies throughout the world that are approaching sustainability; mostly they are small and owner-operated. They are providers and growers of organic food; retrofitters and developers of green buildings; designers of new materials that are biomimetic and compostable; health care providers relying on phyto-pharmaceuticals and natural healing; manufacturers of bicycles; creators of local food webs linking school lunch programs and nearby farmers; makers of hemp clothing; environmental banks; sustainable foresters; trained midwives; and hundreds of other workers and professionals who understand that the work of sustainability is not glamorous and does not accrete into transnational corporations with corporate jets and weekends in Switzerland or Palm Springs to help manage a complex web of affairs.

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