Would you give your savings to a stranger you met on the street who gave you a 900 page document describing his venture, new to you and in a country about which you knew nothing? He offers, not promises, to quadruple your money. Surely not. Yet this is how most serious investors proceed without any knowledge whatsoever of the product, the people, the industry or the country.
Why is the subject of business ethics so difficult to fathom? Why has it served to generate prestigious University departments yet been unable to clean-up damaging business behaviours?
Worse: how have ‘business ethics’ managed to proliferate into further areas of study without at the same time illuminating how you and I should invest? But you and I are not Bill and Miranda Gates, nor are we the decision makers as to whether our product is produced in decent conditions or through virtual (or actual) slavery.
It can be argued that ethical investment is involved every time we decide to buy a product from this firm rather than that. I remember not buying South African oranges when sanctions were supposed to change apartheid. We are lobbied to pass judgement on Apple by refusing to buy the latest iPhone for the atrocious working conditions in some of their Chinese component factories.
I still refuse to buy a chicken that has been raised in a cage, nor eggs from caged chickens.
But I cannot refuse to buy goods which have been produced by ‘caged’ men and women, since it is impossible to know all the processes that have together brought a product to market. Too many different businesses, different stages of production, different components originating from far-flung countries, transport and distribution industries that each have their unique working practices about which I can know nothing.
However there is a simple ethical position to hold for the investing shareholder of any enterprise. And you do not need to go to business school for this!
You have an ethical responsibility in any investment you make to know the people, the industry and the product. Without that knowledge you may support wrong and damaging working practices that abuse both workers, environment, communities and finally the customers. Such knowledge is near impossible in today’s world. This ethical demand for knowing can only occur in sufficiently small enterprises.
But this is the best we can do. A privilege available to few, but one well worth seeking when we invest either to own part of a business or when we buy a product.