Looking on the Bright Side of Life: A Recent Debate on Business Ethics Threatened to Be a Gloomy Experience for Charles Tilley, but He Also Saw Reasons to Remain Optimistic

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By nature I am an optimist--being down in the mouth is no way to energise a team. But I had my usual "glass half full" outlook sorely tested at one of the round-table discussions on ethics that CIMA held in London recently.

The environmental activists at the event painted a bleak picture of where we're heading. Within a decade, they said, climate change would bring a breakdown on the scale of the Great Depression. Also supplying little cheer was our corporate governance guru, who argued that, hard on the heels of the banking crisis, corporate scandals such as the construction industry price-fixing case showed how poor standards were in the UK--and that effective sanctions still weren't being applied. A pressure group argued that entire sectors--eg, defence and mining--inhabited a marketplace where "grand corruption" was rife in many regions.

Lastly, someone wryly confessed to attending a meeting of some 40 big US companies where scarcely anyone apart from him had even heard of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act 1977.

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All this underlines why CIMA's emphasis on sustainability is vital. We need to encourage the building of businesses that last without over-stressing the planet's resources. We also need to uphold the role that management accountants have to play in this effort. A recent survey by CIMA has shown that, while 80 per cent of finance and CSR specialists agree that the finance function should be involved in climate-change initiatives, only a third are involved on a formal basis.

On the governance front, we and our CCAB partners have recently produced a series of case studies exploring the dilemmas faced by accountants working as non-executive directors. These tackle real-life examples, such as non-executives finding themselves under pressure to make a decision without adequate information. This reflects how much scrutiny there now is on business ethics.

But I don't go along with some of the grimmer pronouncements. Concerted multilateral action has tackled intractable global problems such as the hole in the ozone layer. …