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People, Principles and Profits

Diarrhoea and pneumonia are the biggest cause of death in children worldwide. The recent decision of the leading pharmaceutical company, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), to radically reduce the cost of vaccinations against these diseases in low-income countries is welcome to all fair-minded people. The same is true of the company's commitment to ensuring that the world's first malaria vaccine, which GSK is close to creating, will be sold in such countries for little more than the cost price.

The company's rationale for taking these decisions, as articulated in a recent article in The Times by its CEO Andrew Witty, is worthy of consideration. Witty admits to having a vested interest in immunisation because of the profit it delivers. But profit, he points out, is important for three reasons: it makes a healthy return to the company's shareholders; delivers sustainable financial growth to invest in research into new drugs and vaccines; and provides jobs for workers. To make and sustain such profits, Witty contends, the company's operations need to be 'in step with society and its expectations'.

Two aspects of this are particularly striking. First is the emphasis on achieving a 'healthy' return and 'sustainable' financial growth. It stands in stark contrast to the 'maximization' of returns and growth that is often taken to be the purpose of business, by business proponents and detractors alike.

Second is the emphasis on the generation of profits, jobs, and beneficial products; and on the need to win trust. These things are so fundamental to the role of business in society that they only need spelling out in a culture that, while deeply consumerist, is also deeply cynical and suspicious towards business. For they have always been indispensible to all viable companies.

They thereby act as a reminder that we live in a moral universe in which all spheres of society – including business – are called to serve the common good. Because of this, no commercial enterprise can expect to be unaffected in the long-term by its lack of ethical integrity – a lesson some banks have recently discovered to their cost. Amongst those things that are required, as much of companies as of any other social sphere, are three basics highlighted by an ancient Hebrew prophet: justice, kindness and humility (Micah 6.8). With their appeal to moral imagination, these timeless principles stand ready for adoption by all entrepreneurial companies, not only those in whose hands lies the fate of millions of children.

Peter Heslam

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business thrives on the trust and expectations of society
our culture is consumerist but deeply hostile to business