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 1980s and early '90s hardly qualifies as news anymore, its message has become part of our popular consciousness: Businesses need not exist for the sake of greed alone. Consider the bar permanently raised thanks to conscientious companies.
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. With the World Wide Web, more information gets out to more people than ever before. Anyone can log on to the Internet and find out almost instantaneously about libel suits, harassment suits and 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 indicated they would be much more likely to buy from a "good" company if quality, service and price were equal. On the other hand, 70 percent of consumers would not buy--at any price--from a company that was not socially responsible. "Apparently you get some credit for being good," says Walker, "but you really get clobbered for being unethical."
For ethicist Robert C. Solomon, professor of philosophy and business at the University of Texas, Austin and author of It's Good Business: Ethics & Free Enterprise for the New Millennium (Rowman & Littlefield), these various threads weave together into a single truth: Ethics is at the very core of successful commerce. "Ethical managers and ethical businesses tend to be more trusted and suffer less resentment, inefficiency, litigation and government interference," says Solomon. "[Being ethical] is just good business."