Trading fair

Jonathan Webster
Monday, June 20, 2016

Treating other people fairly is one of the pillars of a civilised society and while business is about competition, it’s important that everyone plays by the rules.

Take pricing, for example. If, say, a large magazine printing business keeps its prices artificially low in order to secure contracts – naming no names – and tries to survive on the slimmest of margins, it can have far-reaching consequences. 

Smaller competitors are squeezed and must either cut their own prices or accept that they will get less work. Some will exit the industry or sector and seek opportunities in pastures new, or simply close down altogether, reducing the size of the market

Customers, meanwhile, will jump at the opportunity to reduce their outgoings and quickly adapt to lower prices being the new normal. So the wider industry takes a hit.

And eventually the business itself, its employees and their families will all suffer, because, as everyone knows, keeping your prices artificially low is not sustainable in the long run.

But behaving fairly doesn’t mean making your business less competitive, indeed many companies are finding that their commitment to ethical business practices gives them a commercial edge.

Charmian Allwright, production and operations director at Hachette Book Group, says: “I am approached by print and packaging suppliers from all over the world who are very keen to work with us, but as well as considering the best pricing, my choice will always be for companies that share our values and are prepared to work for us by manufacturing ethically.

“We have all read about factories where workers are treated poorly and work in unacceptable conditions, and we take great care to avoid working with companies who we do not think are working ethically.” 

The multinational publishing companies are major drivers of business for the print trade, and Hachette is the third largest trade and educational publisher in the world. That this goliath takes ethics so seriously indicates how important it is that businesses act fairly.

And the BPIF agrees: “I think any world-class organisation, if it wants to make a profit, needs to develop an ethical culture,” says membership secretary Dale Wallis.

Similar to Hachette, although on a much smaller scale, MPC Print Solutions in London, is an SME that refuses to play dirty. Managing director Tony Crook says he encourages his staff to be ethical in the marketplace.

“The print trade is notorious for being a bit dog-eat-dog. And we don’t see ourselves in that environment,” he says. 

“We try not to get involved in Dutch auctions. When we give a price, we give a price that is good and honest. We have to be sustainable in the way we conduct our business. And the only way to do that is by being ethical in the way we price and present jobs.”

So what is ethical working and how do you go about ensuring your business plays fair?

At the forefront of the drive to extend the adoption of ethical business practices is the Institute of Business Ethics (IBE), which was established 30 years ago to encourage a high standard of business behaviour.

Research hub manager Dan Johnson explains: “Essentially we’re looking at ways in which an organisation can embed ethics in what they do, and live their values.” 

Both the IBE and the BPIF stress the importance of communicating your desired values to employees, contractors and anyone else who will be working with or for the business.

This is something that MPC has taken on board. Crook says: “From an ethical point of view we have two fronts – outwardly to our customers, and inwardly to our staff.”

Ethics concern an individual’s moral judgements about what is right and wrong. Decisions taken within an organisation may be made by individuals or groups, but whoever makes them will be influenced by the culture of the company. And while a business’s values should be set by the management, they must be implemented at every level, if they are to mean anything.

Lines of communication

Wallis says: “The starting point for us at the BPIF – and what we encourage our many members from the UK print industry to do – is ensure that employees understand the values and expectations of our organisation. We do this through our departmental managers on a daily basis. This is demonstrated from the top down.”

Hachette’s Allwright says: “Like most of us working at the Hachette Children’s Group, I am passionate about children’s books and encouraging children to read. I also believe we should be role models in how we produce and publish books for children. Therefore, we should manufacture our books responsibly.”

Of course, it’s all very well talking the talk, but you also need to walk the walk, and this is where good communication with staff really plays its part. Wallis explains: “As we give advice to members on sensitive and complex issues, it is imperative that our employees also know how important ethics are, and that there is a need to adhere to them.”

Hachette’s commitment to ethical practices is perhaps best seen in its sustainability policies. Allwright says: “Everyone is aware of the damage being inflicted on our environment and the impact of climate change. We are lucky to be in a position as a business, where we can play a part in trying to reduce the impact of our manufacturing on the environment. 

“Printed copies of all our books carry the FSC logo. We want it to be visible to the public that we are sourcing our papers responsibly.”

But is it only the big corporations who can afford the luxury of being ethical?

Well, no, actually.

One grassroots print operation that shows how ethics can drive not only the business cultures but serve the community as well is MARC, a not-for-profit printing organisation located in north Manchester.

MARC was formed in September 1975 as the Manchester Resource Centre. According to one of its longest-serving master printers, Colin Rowan. “We were formed as an Industrial and Provident Society, run by a management committee made up of representatives from our membership – voluntary organisations, cooperatives and social enterprises. So we have always had a strong ethical basis,” he says. 

“Although sustainability was not a buzz word in 1975, we have always had a policy of having as little impact on the environment as possible. Our core membership – our customers, if you like – of organisations such as the local Friends of the Earth group, the local Green Party, organic garden societies have been attracted to us by our ethical and environmentally friendly policies.”

Material gains

MARC’s use of more sustainable printing materials is also clearly a winner. Rowan explains: “Our use of soya-based inks, and water-based inks, also brings us commercial printing for local businesses who have the welfare of the environment high up on their priorities list. 

“Also Risograph printing, which uses soya-based inks to produce single or multiple colour prints, is very trendy among artists. We are seeing a resurgence of Risograph printing at the moment. 

“People also come to us because 90% of our paper and card is recycled, and about 50% of our prints are Risograph or inkjet. “We would like to see a MARC in every town and city.”

MPC is also hot on sustainability. “We do pretty much all the green side of things, says Crook. “We are ISO 9001- and 14001-certified. And, as well as being FSC-accredited, we belong to the Woodland Trust and are carbon neutral in that respect.”

Oxford-based t-shirt company, Shirt Works, has ethics, the environment and sustainability right at the very heart of what it does. The company is proud of the long list of ethical working organisations of which it is either a member or has been accredited by. These include the Living Wage Foundation, Fair Wear Foundation and the Fair Trade Foundation. In 2009 it became the only t-shirt printer and embroiderer in Europe with Soil Association accreditation.

Director Arron Harnden says: “We were one of the first living wage accredited t-shirt printing companies three years before the government jumped on the bandwagon and hijacked the phrase. This has allowed us to retain talent, attract better staff and run a better company. Being ‘ethical’ creates a positive atmosphere that we also value.

“We offer a Soil Association and GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certified option for printing and embroidery at a price which is very competitive and yet ensures that our employees are well paid. This involves printing with Plastisol inks as well as approved water-based inks and organically approved print processes.”

Harnden is convinced that his company’s stance gives it a pronounced commercial advantage in certain sectors: “Our audience and clients appreciate the good we are trying to do and this makes a difference when they make their buying decisions. We have a number of clients, large charities and socially-aware enterprises, that have chosen us over our competitors because of our values. 

“They know we are not the cheapest but they are looking for ‘value’ as well as ‘values’ and we align with their corporate and social buying responsibilities. I am convinced that our position in the marketplace as a champion for ‘ethics’ does attract both revenues and positive PR.”

Whether a business is a huge multinational corporation or an SME, responsible working practices are achievable and many companies are more concerned about it than ever, as the IBE’s Johnson explains: “Operating according to ethical values is playing an increasingly important role in business today. We know that because our membership among companies both large and small is increasing year on year.” 

How ethics can improve business

Do join the IBE (the Institute of Business Ethics). It only costs £600 a year for SMEs, £2,500 for organisations between 2,000 and 2,500 people and £6,000 for companies with more than 2,000 employees.

If you are a member of the BPIF do request a copy of their Ethics Policy – also entitled: Human Resources Draft Policy. It is comprehensive and covers a slew of relevant subjects including: human rights, workers’ rights, environmental issues, conflicts of interest, bribery and corruption.

In extremely clear-cut words, the BPIF paper on Ethics Policy – designed for its member companies to use as a blueprint – contains some sage advice: 

Do make sure that: “The company is committed to the practice of responsible corporate behaviour.”

Do make sure that: “Through its business practices the company seeks to protect and promote the human rights and basic freedoms of all its employees and agents.”

Do make sure that: “The company is also committed to eliminating bribery and corruption. It is essential that all employees and persons associated with the company adhere to this policy and abstain from giving or receiving bribes of any form.” In the sub-section Human Rights it states: “The company is vehemently opposed to the use of slavery in all its forms; cruel, inhuman or degrading punishments. 

 “The company will ensure that all of its employees, agents and contractors are entitled to their human rights as set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Human Rights Act, 1998.”

Do make sure that “the company is committed to complying with all relevant employment legislation and regulations. The company regards such regulations and legislation as the minimum rather than the recommended standard.” 

Do make sure “no worker is discriminated against on the basis of age, sex, race, sexual orientation, religion or beliefs, gender reassignment, marital status or pregnancy. All workers should be treated equally. Workers with the same experience and qualifications should receive equal pay for equal work.”

Do articulate your organisation’s core values, to include a balance of both business values (for example, innovation, customer focus, quality and so on) and ethical values (integrity, respect, openness).

Do give guidance to staff to promote ethical decision making when faced with a dilemma not covered by law or regulation.

Do demonstrate ethical leadership at all levels of the organisation (not just at the top).

Do encourage a culture where employees are free to raise their concerns about misconduct without fear of retaliation.

Do realise – if you have not done so by now – that ethical conduct promotes a strong public image for a company. 

Do realise that people respect a company that makes ethical choices. Customers like doing business with an organisation they can trust. 

Do realise that ethical conduct makes the best use of resources. Money, time, and effort are put into productive activities rather than diverted for questionable purposes or personal gain. 

Do consider that ethical conduct on the part of all employees also helps maintain quality and productivity. When employees follow ethical standards, they do not cut corners or short-change the company or its customers

Ethical conduct assists the organisation to comply with laws and regulations. What is ethical is also legal. 

Ethical conduct ensures good and proper relationships with customers and vendors.

Ethical conduct boosts morale and promotes teamwork. When employees can trust one another, and management, they can work together more harmoniously and effectively.

Do remember that there is a difference between doing things ethically and doing ethical things.

Do guide members of staff (particularly new ones) on the way things are done in the company.

Don’t think that compliance with the law is enough. As readers of this article will by now be aware: ethics is so much more – a combination of company culture, good behaviour and green and sustainable policies.

Don’t create policies that are not practical and as a consequence are left ‘in the drawer’. The way to hell is paved with good intentions.

Don’t make judgements about individual/personal morals. 

Don’t ignore concerns when they are raised. Have a transparent and open-door policy so that employees are not frightened to talk.

When drawing up ethical guidelines, don’t be too general. Be specific. Generalisations can be dull and difficult to understand. Make guidelines that are industry specific. 

Don’t be too technical. Ethical guidelines should be just guidelines, or behavioural parameters for employees to work within. 

Don’t be too trendy or faddish. What is good and touchy-feely today may not be so in five years time.

Don’t do unto others what you would not have them do to you.


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