Business has got too used to all its bad habits

From the Royal Society of Arts Lecture, given by Peter Parker, the businessman and former chairman of the British Rail Board
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As a worn optimist, I like to march to an upbeat of the drum. I believe that an outspoken commitment to environmental policy and practice - defined and public and transparent - is expected of any competitive and ambitious company. Environment (the big E) is not something left for the last gasped paragraph of Chairman's Statements, not an add-on, like an outboard motor, to be stuck on to try to make any old tub keep going. Environmental management has to be designed into the whole craft of business. More and more business leaders of pace-making enterprises have come to see it as central to good business and its corporate citizenship - for all sorts of reasons of course, including commercial self-interest and genuine conviction.

As a worn optimist, I like to march to an upbeat of the drum. I believe that an outspoken commitment to environmental policy and practice - defined and public and transparent - is expected of any competitive and ambitious company. Environment (the big E) is not something left for the last gasped paragraph of Chairman's Statements, not an add-on, like an outboard motor, to be stuck on to try to make any old tub keep going. Environmental management has to be designed into the whole craft of business. More and more business leaders of pace-making enterprises have come to see it as central to good business and its corporate citizenship - for all sorts of reasons of course, including commercial self-interest and genuine conviction.

I date the mind-shift as starting around 25 years ago. One company I was chairing then, Rockware, was a bottle manufacturer. We made 7 million bottles a day, and were therefore perhaps an ambiguous blessing to society. Before an AGM, in the mid-Seventies, I was given heavy-breathing advice not to make any reference to the fact that I was deputy chairman of the Friends of the Earth. "Better not to be seen as the green-sandalled army on the march... City not ready yet."

I left to have seven happy years on the rails. On my return, one of the things I did was to take up the Rockware chair again. Lo and behold, at my first AGM I found advisers telling me that if I saw the chance to make known my association with Friends of the Earth, I should do so. Well, well! The shaggy beast of business, slouching its way to Jerusalem.

This conversion in company attitudes - from condescension to commitment and intense concentration - has to be set in the perspective of the world-widening awareness of what is really at stake. Suddenly, fear is a formidable unifier - a touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

Earth summits at Rio and Kyoto, whatever their disappointments, do register an increasing international urgency. The trumpets make an uncertain sound, but in their muffled way, herald the hope of a kind of Declaration of Interdependence. All this is bracing business for more and more change. Good. And I'd sum up the best of business attitudes as increasingly realistic: business has certainly helped to create a mess, and the best of it is now determined to help to clean it up.

I know that to generalise is to be an idiot, but if I'm right, that's relatively good news. The bad news is that our timing may be out, our actions maddeningly slow. Not only those of business, but of governments, communities, individuals. Everything is happening too slowly. Our business civilisation, I'm afraid, has got too used to its bad habits, infecting land, sea and air, scything forests, raining acid on ourselves, drilling holes in the sky, threatening bio-diversity.

A few days ago, David Brower, the founder of Friends Of the Earth, died. Only last spring, he resigned in exasperation: "The world is burning, and all I hear is the music of violins."

We have to think harder and faster in a tumultuous, changing scene. Of one thing I feel certain. We cannot expect the free-market system can do the job for us.

We are being warned. The same message emerges from the Battle of Seattle - and despite the muddle of causes, the message has all the distinction of a thunder-cloud forming: the global market system needs to be saved from itself and its universal appetite, and this is not only a matter for global governance summits or boardrooms; it is a matter for communities and the individual.

In conclusion, my own bottom line is this: we may have to live with capitalism, but not the worst kind. We do not have to follow a market system if it proves indifferent to the values of humanity, and I strongly believe that the environmental fight is too important to leave to the generals.

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