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British firms win awards for ethical standards Sainsbury and Co- op win first ethical awards

Britain's corporate responsibility movement will receive a boost this week when Sainsbury's and the Co-op Bank become the first British companies to win a leading international award for pioneering ethical standards in business.

The Corporate Conscience Awards, due to be announced on Wednesday, are the idea of the Council on Economic Priorities (CEP), an American organisation which monitors and rates how companies perform in areas such as environmental protection, child labour and treatment of employees.

Notions of corporate responsibility - recognising that companies perform better when they raise their eyes from the bottom line and take broader social concerns into account - have advanced in recent years as socialism has retreated but concern has continued about the enormous influence of companies such as supermarkets on people's lives.

The CEP is working with the UN Conference on Trade and Development to draw up a worldwide standard for corporate social accountability. The Council hopes than the project, called SA 2000, will provide a common measure of corporate responsibility, irrespective of where a company operates.

Sainsbury's won the Corporate Conscience Award for its success in cutting the use of pesticides by suppliers of fruit and vegetables.

The Co-op Bank's award was for its Co-operative Ethical Policy, to which managing director Terry Thomas has strongly committed himself. The policy bars the bank from financing companies in businesses such as tobacco, exploitative factory farming and arms dealing with oppressive regimes. The bank was an early supporter of the campaign to ban land mines.

Previous winners include Xerox and Levi-Strauss, the world's biggest clothing company.

Earlier this year, Sainsbury's and the Co-operative Bank were among a group of British companies which signed a charter of ethical business standards. The charter partly grew out of an initiative by the charity Christian Aid, which highlighted the often dubious treatment of suppliers in poor countries.

In the run-up to the election, Labour committed itself to encouraging fair trade, which tries to give developing country suppliers a better deal, for example by cutting out middlemen and buying direct from producers.