This week I was at the quarterly Board meeting of Sedex, the Supplier Ethical Data Exchange, the focus of which is “to make it easier to do business that’s good for everyone”. The range of subjects that could be reflected in the ethical policy of a business is broad and Sedex has a strong focus on the human element in the workplace. From our perspective in a G7 economy it is easy to think of human rights issues as being a problem that exists ‘somewhere else’, but with compliance with the UK’s Modern Slavery Act at only around 30% it may not be as clear cut as we would like to think. A number of other events during the week reflected some of the other angles of business ethics.
One of the informal groups of which I’m a member held one of its occasional dinner meetings this week to debate the plastics issue and the implications of what is currently happening within the food industry and beyond. Hosted by one of the members, we had a great view of Tower Bridge as we ate and talked. I’ve written about plastics before (see ‘It’s Not In The Bag Yet’, ‘Blue Planet Blues’ and other posts) and developments continue apace. Barely a week goes by without another announcement from a food manufacturer or retailer about changes they are making. Iceland seems to have received the most coverage, but in the last few days we’ve also seen announcements from Ikea, Morrison’s and Coca-Cola. The public response remains strong and not just in the UK. The Indian government has pledged to eliminate all single-use plastic by 2022 in a move hailed by the UN’s Environment chief Erik Solheim as providing “global leadership” where the rest of the world was falling short. This type of activity would normally be labelled as ‘environmental’ rather than ‘ethical’, but I would contend that taking action to deliver environmental or social benefit is to behave ethically.
Finally, I was one of the attendees at a meeting organised by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics on the role that science and technology can play in the future of food sustainability in the UK. NCoB is an independent body that examines and reports on ethical issues in biology and medicine, which is funded jointly by the Nuffield Foundation, Wellcome and the Medical Research Council and serves as an independent non-partisan think tank. Attended mostly by academics and NGOs, with a smattering of industry representatives, the meeting discussed a number of topics including the key challenges, research and innovation needs and the social implication of change. With the date of the UK’s departure from the EU coming ever closer, Britain’s food system will inevitably undergo significant changes and the discussions at the event were part of a much larger debate around how that will look. Much of the debate centred on the social sciences rather than biology and chemistry, reflecting the importance of behaviours and public opinion in the success and acceptance of a new system.
Whilst there I bumped into Patrick Holden CBE, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust. The SFT is a charity campaigning for food and farming systems which nourish the health of the planet and its people, which late last year published a report on the hidden cost of food. Internalising externalities is a necessary part of the change that we need in the agri-food system and the report highlights the costs, environmental and social, that aren’t paid at the supermarket checkout but are encountered elsewhere. It makes for sobering reading, concluding that the true cost of food is double the display price, with most of the external costs arising from diet-related ill-health and environmental degradation.
There are environmental and social consequences of the choices we all make in our diets which go far beyond the impacts on our own personal health. With smartphones in almost every hand, access to information has never been easier, but that doesn’t guarantee that knowledge of the impacts of food choices is widespread or that there is universal agreement on the ‘facts’. The Food Ethics Council has recently published a report entitled ‘For Whom? Questioning the Food and Farming Research Agenda’ which looks into this topic in some detail, which is well worth a read.