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  Business Times 6 Sep 07
Wanted: companies with a conscience
Those that don't exhibit socially responsible policies will not - and should not - survive
By Raju Chellam

CONSIDER these examples: In November 2006, in a sleepy town in rural India, a tall, old man wearing a red turban launched a high-speed wireless network to help farmers surf the Web and find the right prices at which to sell their produce.

The stranger was Intel chairman Craig Barrett, and the project was part of Intel's US$1 billion plan that the giant announced in May to help the poorest regions in the world to use technology to bridge the digital divide.

Bill Gates has donated some US$5.4 billion over the past five years to boost health standards in countries that need the most help. That's more than John D Rockefeller gave to all his causes in his 97-year lifetime, according to The Miami Herald. The World Health Organization credits the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation with helping save 670,000 lives from disease and death, worldwide.

Motorola Corp makes specially designed mobile phones priced at under US$30 for people in the poorest countries who have never used them before. Motorola is working on this project with the GSM Association and has already sold millions of these low-cost phones, many of them across Africa and Latin America.

Google's founders have set up a US$1 billion seed fund to tackle poverty, disease and global warming. Its first project is to develop an ultra-fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid car engine that runs on ethanol, electricity and petrol. The goal of the project is to reduce dependence on oil while alleviating the effects of global warming.

IBM Corp has teamed up with the University of Texas Medical Branch and the University of Chicago to discover drugs to treat and cure dengue fever, West Nile encephalitis, hepatitis C, and yellow fever that threaten the poorest countries.

Hewlett-Packard contributed resources worth US$45 million in fiscal 2006 to help schools and non-profit charitable organisations address some of their most fundamental challenges with the help of technology.

Cisco Systems Foundation, created in 1997 with an endowment of US$64 million, laid the groundwork for a long-term, focused philanthropic effort.

'Doing good will always contribute to doing well,' says Cisco chairman John Morgridge. 'A successful business should provide both business and social benefits.'

Is all this a big PR stunt? Have these companies discovered their hidden moral and social conscience? Or have they found the next version of corporate nirvana?

You won't be wrong in thinking there's a bit of truth in all those statements. But there's more.

The amounts involved go beyond any PR by anyone, anytime. The people involved - the leaders in their field - won't lend their name or stake their reputation on projects that don't make a big difference.

And the enlightenment of the corporate soul, so to say, is something that is morally irreversible.

Why now? Because our fragile planet is threatened like never before.

For one, blatant disregard for the environment has led to global warming which is upsetting the delicate balance of the earth.

For another, over-fishing is depleting our oceans while rapid development is shrinking our forests and decimating our biodiversity.

And for a third, poverty, hunger and disease, and the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots have kept huge chunks of the earth's population in a permanent state of despair.

Governments alone can't solve the earth's problems. Large conglomerates have to step in.

They have the reach of multilateral agencies such as the World Health Organisation and World Wildlife Fund. All they need is the awakening of their social conscience.

That seems to be happening now.

'Accumulation of wealth for the sake of wealth alone is self-defeating,' the Dalai Lama once said. 'Only in seeking one's work as a calling, a means to serve a higher purpose, can one find true fulfilment.'

Mahatma Gandhi said that commerce without morality is a sin. It is all the more evident now.

Jon Huntsman, chairman and founder of US chemical giant Huntsman Corp, says that many CEOs enjoy princely lifestyles even as stakeholders lose their jobs, pensions, benefits, investments, and trust in the American way.

'Cooked ledgers, look-the-other-way auditors, kickbacks, flimflams of every sort have burrowed their way in today's corporate climate,' Mr Huntsman wrote in his book, Winners Never Cheat, published by the Wharton Business School.

'Many outside corporate directors bask in perks and fees, concerned only in keeping Wall Street happy and their fees intact.'

The trend is changing, thanks to a global awareness of the need to save the environment, maintain the earth's biodiversity, and lift the poorest from their miserable existence.

Over the next few years, expect this trend to rapidly accelerate.

And companies that don't exhibit policies to specifically care for the needy, or protect the environment, or be kind to animals, or enhance our biodiversity, will not - and should not - survive in the tough global economy.

It makes business sense, too. Investors who put their money on socially responsible firms will technically be investing in higher quality companies.

A good attitude towards social causes and responsibility is a sign of good management. A managing director who promotes ethical values and environment-friendly policies is less likely to get hit by lawsuits and bad publicity.

There is a new breed of fund managers who invest in 'ethical stocks' and shun companies that test drugs on animals, or pollute the oceans, or burn down forests in the name of development, or use child labour to produce their goods in emerging economies.

Over the next few years, get ready to welcome a spate of companies that put ethics above profits, and concern for the environment above ROI.

In the process, the chief executive officer also becomes the chief ethics officer.

As for investors, they will insist on getting an audited ethics and environment report together with the annual report.

That's the only way for companies, governments - and the earth itself - to survive.

The writer is Vice- President (Asia-Pacific), Access Markets International Partners

Related articles on Singapore: general environmental issues
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