What's behind the current buzz about ethics? A number of factors, really. The days when one could argue that conscience and business don't mix are gone for good. Although the social responsibility movement of the late '80s and early '90s hardly qualifies as news anymore--and, in fact, some of its icons have hit tough sledding--its message has become part of our popular consciousness: Businesses need not exist for the sake of greed alone. Consider the bar permanently raised.
As standards have gone up, public awareness has also intensified. "It's not necessarily that we care more about ethics today," says Laura Pincus Hartman, director of the Institute for Business & Professional Ethics at DePaul University in Chicago, "but that, because of [better communication], we know more about companies than we once did. Anyone can log on to the Internet and find out instantaneously about libel suits, harassment suits--all kinds of information that would have been difficult to uncover in the past."
Awareness translates into action. When Walker Information polled 1,037 consumers in 1994, 47 percent said they'd be much more likely to buy from a "good" company if quality, service and price were equal, and 70 percent of consumers would not buy--at any price--from a company that wasn't socially responsible. "Apparently, you get some credit for being good," observes Walker, "but you get clobbered for being unethical."
For ethicist Robert C. Solomon, professor of philosophy and business at the University of Texas at Austin and author of It's Good Business: Ethics & Free Enterprise for the New Millennium (Rowman & Littlefield, $18.95, 800-462-6420), these threads weave together into a single truth: Ethics is the very basis for successful commerce. "Ethical businesses tend to be more trusted and better treated, and to suffer less resentment, inefficiency, litigation and government interference," says Solomon. "Ethics is just good business."