Social entrepreneur Robert Ashton: Does it really pay to be ethical in business?

Robert Ashton, social entrepreneur.

Robert Ashton, social entrepreneur. - Credit: Robert Ashton

Does it really pay to be ethical in business?

Britain is on course to have the highest employment rate in Europe, said the Office for National Statistics last week. It's becoming a buyers' market, with job-seekers able to pick and choose. In my parents' day the mantra was to keep your 'head down and nose clean', with a decent pension and happy retirement the ultimate goal. Today everyone expects to change jobs several times.

A recent survey of people born between 1981 and 1996 found that 62% want to work for a company that makes a positive impact. Tellingly, the survey also found that more than half would work harder if they felt their job meant they were making a positive difference to others. And, of course, being an employer of choice with an enthusiastic and motivated workforce makes you more profitable too.

Ethical business is nothing new. 17th-century Quakers managed very successfully to balance profit with an ethical approach to commercial transactions and employee relations. The Gurney family are perhaps the best local example. They were active in the wool trade and founded Gurney's Bank in Norwich in 1770.

Later, in the 19th century, the co-operative movement introduced the concept of employee and customer ownership. The co-op business model has proven to be more resilient in times of recession. It's perhaps one reason why John Lewis remains and BHS and Woolworths have gone.

Of course, many Norfolk businesses already consider themselves ethical. But too many keep it a secret. Now, more than ever before, your business will do better if you set out to make a difference, as well as a profit.

The traditional excuse for putting profit before purpose, or even people, was the need to deliver strong shareholder returns. But according to Moneyfacts ethical investment funds are consistently outperforming the non-ethical funds.

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To explore the opportunities I've organised a debate on ethical business at 6pm on October 3 at Open on Bank Plain in Norwich – once home to Gurney's Bank. The event is collaboration between Norwich Quakers, Norwich Cathedral and the Royal Society of Arts and speakers include Doug Field, Joint CEO of East of England Cooperative; Lisa Hardman of Norwich-based Investing Ethically and Loughlin Hickey of the national Blueprint for Better Business.

The debate is free to attend. You can register online or by emailing