Industry’s green light for change

THE autumn storms that have recently buffeted the country have thrown into very sharp relief the possible impact on the environment of industrial and economic activity.

People are asking whether business’ focus on wealth creation is to the exclusion of other responsibilities - to people, communities and the environment.

This is a particularly acute issue in investment management. How do we reconcile our interests as investors with the interests of society?

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Well, whether we like it or not, we have to do more than ever to manage these issues.

Two things illustrate this. First, in Whitehall, Tony Blair has appointed Kim Howells as the Minister for Corporate Social Responsibility.

This puts the business ethics agenda - social and community issues, poverty and social deprivation, human rights and the environment - right at the heart of Government policy-making. Business can no longer ignore business ethics.

Second, trustees of occupational pension schemes are now required to declare the extent to which social, environmental or ethical considerations are taken into account in the selection, retention or realisation of assets.

This does not impose any requirement on trustees other than to state whether these considerations have been taken into account.

It does, however, make the whole business transparent, especially when we consider in a recent opinion poll, 77 per cent of pension scheme members preferred ethically-screened investments.

About a third of the shares quoted on the London Stock Exchange are owned by pension funds worth many hundreds of billions of pounds. And, under new LSE rules, by 2002 all companies must submit information on environmental, social and ethical risks in annual reports.

More and more, it’s consumers who are at the forefront of demanding that businesses are aware of the social and environmental consequences of their actions. And what consumers demand, they ultimately get.

Here in the UK and in Europe, it is evident campaigners for socially-responsible corporate behaviour are adopting US-style tactics to encourage shareholder activism to reconcile company investment strategies with their social responsibilities.

The good news is that many companies within many industries are responding.

For example, motor companies Ford and Daimler-Chrysler have withdrawn from the Global Climate Coalition or GCC, set up by the power utilities, oil and car companies in the early 1990s to deny global warming and oppose legislation to curb carbon emissions.

Furthermore, the likes of BP Amoco and Shell Oil, having left the GCC, have joined the Business Environmental Leadership Council in the US, which presses the US Congress to take action on energy efficiency.

The net result is that energy saving, improved water management, emissions reduction, alternative, renewable energy and a general "greening" of industry is quite discernible. In particular, and most topical of all in the light of our recent weather problems, climate change "denial" is in retreat.

In other words, this isn’t just Swampy’s agenda; it’s an agenda that’s finding its way in to more and more board meetings in more and more companies worldwide.

Of course, our priority has to continue to be the creation of wealth and all that goes with it in terms of jobs, prosperity and quality of life.

But "wealth" has to mean more than pounds, shillings and pence. It has to mean "quality", including quality of life, quality of environment and of the future for the next generations.

British business has shown itself more flexible than most. I am sure it will continue to embrace this exciting agenda with enthusiasm going forward.

Bill Main is chief executive officer with Scottish Widows Investment Partnership