Not being unfair in business

A well-attended session at the RSA tonight to launch Blueprint for Better Business‘s paper on Fairness in Business.

It’s an excellent, challenging paper, building on earlier discussions. It sets out how “acting unfairly undermines the very basis of trust in market relationships on which all profitable activity depends”. It provides challenges and provocations rather than easy answers, and is all the stronger for it.

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There was an open discussion between Charles Wookey of Blueprint, philosopher Baroness Onora O’Neill, Liverpool Councillor Jane Corbett and Justin King, former Sainsbury CEO. These are a few outputs (my quotes are approximately accurate but can easily be checked against YouTube):

Charles Wookey: “Fairness is one of the keys to unlock the system change” that business needs, from growth for its own sake to promoting human wellbeing. He suggests fairness should not be seen in the abstract but should be a frame of mind, enabling businesses to seek to act fairly in relation to each of their stakeholders. “Even if it is not possible to be fair to all, it should be possible for business to avoid acting manifestly unfair towards anyone.”

Justin King was dismissive of algorithms, saying “The decisions business takes now that have the biggest delta are those that are the furthest away from numbers, when the numbers can’t take them for you.” That’s why, he says, purpose is important — though he shies away from the uncertainties of fairness. He also emphasised our own influence as consumers. He notes the time-horizon of a family business like Mars, where 75-year investments are made — on that time-horizon “you must by definition think about these issues”.

Onora O’Neill said plainly: “Trustworthiness is the important thing, not trust.” She noted that companies are complicated so it is wrong to suggest that even a corner shop has a single purpose — all have a “plurality of purposes”, not just focusing on the bottom line or maximising profit. Limited liability is a major benefit for companies and brings responsibility. And on fairness specifically she noted Rawls’ book Justice as Fairness. Fairness is crucial because it cannot be reduced to a claimable right.