Why we need to step up our ethical game if we want a brighter future post COVID-19

By Edwina Jackson (student)

Resident student Edwina Jackson provides a recap of this week's Fireside Chat with Associate Professor Ben Neville, and gives us insight into how both personal and corporate responsibility can help us emerge from the COVID-19 crisis for the better.

Hand sanitiser_business ethics

It’s been three months – we’re finally getting the hang of this COVID-19 thing.

Standing 1.5m away from other people is normal. Hand sanitiser, second nature.

Restrictions are lifting. Finally, it feels like we're seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and we can begin to think about our future, post COVID-19.

But now we must ask – what does this future look like? And more importantly, what do we want it to look like?

In this week’s Fireside Chat at Trinity College – as part of an ongoing program that invites experts to address students on different topics – University of Melbourne Senior Lecturer and Gourlay Fellow of Ethics in Business, Associate Professor Ben Neville, shared his insights into life post COVID-19.

Specialising in ethical and sustainable business, Ben talked about taking responsibility, operating sustainably, and how ultimately it is crucial for us to shift our ethical practices if we want a better future after COVID-19.   

It got me thinking about a trip I took to Woolworths the other day. I walked in, got a trolley, and instantly a woman in a Woolies uniform bustled over to me, smiling.

‘Can I wipe that down for you?’ she asked.

I nodded, and she promptly sanitised the trolley’s handle.

‘There’s hand sanitiser just here, if you want a bit,’ she said. I dipped my hands under the sanitiser machine.

At the end of my trip, the cashier asked if I had a Woolworths Rewards card from behind a thick plastic screen.

Seemingly small efforts by big companies like Woolworths are making all the difference right now. Installing no-touch hand-sanitising stations, putting employees in charge of wiping trolleys, installing plastic barriers between customers and cashiers – these are the initiatives limiting the spread of COVID-19, and during our Fireside Chat, Ben highlighted these examples as ethical business practices.

‘With power comes responsibility,’ says Ben.

This ethical level is what he defines as the stakeholder versus shareholder model.

‘This framework recognises that corporations rely on many more stakeholders than just shareholders,’ he explains. ‘The concerns of all stakeholders need to be considered for ethical practice.’

Stakeholders include customers, employees, the community, the government and the natural environment.

Woolworths, like so many other businesses right now, are claiming responsibility to their stakeholders to provide the ethical practices that are keeping our society functional. After all, they have the funds and the power to make a difference.

However, businesses should not be the only ones putting in effort.

We must also step up our ethical game. We have a responsibility to ourselves. We must increasingly look at life from more of a stakeholder perspective.

Ben describes this as the fall of neoliberalism.

‘The neoliberalism paradigm assumes that self-interested, individualist behaviour will result in the best of all worlds,’ says Ben. ‘It relies on the invisible hand to fix everything for us.’

However, evidently, the invisible hand cannot just click its fingers and mend our mistakes if we are bustling through life only for personal gain.

Sadly, the invisible hand has not, and cannot, fix our two biggest global threats right now: the climate crisis and the virus economy. The onus is on us.

So, we now need to ask – how high can we set our ethical and sustainable standards?

It’s a particularly complicated issue because our two threats equally oppose each other. For instance, with the estimated eight per cent decline in carbon emissions this year comes a catastrophic hit to the global economy.

‘It has shown how much economic disruption 'eight per cent' means,’ says Ben.

Yet, ideally, we would be dropping our emissions by eight per cent per year if we wanted to realistically battle climate change. That means some of the power falls into our hands as individuals to help strike a balance between sustainability and economic strength.

Collectively, small changes in our lives can immeasurably help our economy and climate. Maybe it’s shifting our consumer habits to buy more local, slow fashion, instead of splurging on cheap pieces online. Maybe it's spending $4 on a coffee from the place around the corner instead of a big chain. Maybe it’s making sure we recycle that next Uber Eats bag.

The thing that was clear from Ben’s talk is this: to build a better future for ourselves, our economy and our natural environment, we must take ethical responsibility. We must put in the extra effort if we want to come out the other side of this for the better.

COVID-19 has shown us that.

By Edwina Jackson

14 May 2020