Goodwill Hunting

Who cares about socially responsible business practices? Seventy percent of consumers, that's who.

Because we believe the subject matter is so important, over the next two months Entrepreneur Media is running the following article, examining the question of ethics for small business, in three of our publications: Entrepreneur, Business Start-Ups and Entrepreneur's HomeOffice.

Charlie Wilson is trying to run an ethical business. He's made social responsibility part of the mission statement at his $1.6 million Houston-based salvage company, SeaRail International Inc. He's made ethics a consideration in putting together guidelines for his salespeople. And he's made "self-actualization"--not wealth--his ultimate goal as an entrepreneur.

But don't mistake Wilson for some born-again hippie or moralistic stick-in-the-mud. For him, it's all about success. "Ethics is what's spearheading our growth," says Wilson. "It creates an element of trust, familiarity and predictability in the business. We're in an industry where a lot of people cut corners. It's easy to misrepresent products and be less than upfront with customers about the condition of goods. I just don't think that's good for business. You don't get a good reputation doing things that way. And eventually, customers won't want to do business with you."

For years, ethics and business had a rocky marriage. If you asked entrepreneurs to talk about ethics, the responses would range from scorn to ridicule. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, they'd say, and I'm just trying to survive. But it went even deeper than that. Here are folks who--by definition--like breaking the rules. Suggesting that entrepreneurs follow a predefined set of edicts was about as popular as asking them to swear off electricity.

But this attitude may be changing. Whether people are hung over from the freewheeling '80s or reflective about the coming millennium, talk about ethics, values, integrity and responsibility is not only becoming acceptable in the business community, it's practically required.

"This looks to me just like the quality movement of 20 years ago," says Frank Walker, chairman of Indianapolis-based Walker Information Inc., a research and consulting company that tracks customer satisfaction and business ethics. "In any free-enterprise system, customers need a way to differentiate one firm from another." For years, the dominant point of differentiation has been quality. Now, says Walker, everyone can deliver quality, so businesses need to step up to a higher plane.

Are the nation's entrepreneurs ready to ascend to new heights of ethical literacy and compliance? Well, sort of. Although most entrepreneurs still aren't trying to unseat the likes of Socrates and Plato, many are giving serious thought to improving ethics within their companies--and within themselves--with the hope that doing good business will be good for business.

Gayle Sato Stodder covers entrepreneurship for various publications. She lives and works in Redondo Beach, California.

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This article was originally published in the July 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Goodwill Hunting.

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