Ethical apprentice

Last updated: Sept 2007


The UK’s best known businessman still has a lot to learn about the business of ethics, says Simon Birch


TV has the unnerving habit of producing some unlikely celebrities. One of the latest is Sir Alan Sugar, the wheeler-dealer multi-millionaire boss of the Amstrad electronics company and star of the BBC series The Apprentice.

Throughout the programmes Sir Alan was relentlessly portrayed as being a successful, cutting-edge, corporate leader representing the very best that modern-day British business has to offer.

Unfortunately, whilst Sir Alan may be the role model for many a young, aspiring businessperson, his business is still very much stuck in the last century in a number of key areas.


No policy?

Avid fans of The Apprentice may be interested to learn that, unlike other leading businesses, Amstrad has no effective policy on corporate social responsibility (CSR), nor has it any plan in place to reduce its impact on climate change.

The response from Amstrad to the claim that perhaps Sir Alan may want to look at his lack of environmental policies was less than encouraging: “Amstrad always has, and continues to take its environmental, social and community responsibilities very seriously,” said a company spokesperson. “As a leading electronics company Amstrad is sensitive to its environmental impact, and as a result, donates a proportion of its profits to recycling organisations.”

OK, but if Amstrad takes its environmental responsibilities so seriously Sir Alan, why haven’t you got any effective policies in place such as quantified targets for improving Amstrad’s environmental impact?

Regrettably the Ethical Sceptic wasn’t able to get answers to this and other points as Sir Alan’s spokesperson wouldn’t reply to any of our questions.


Going to be left behind?

However Sir Alan would do well to listen to David McNeil from Business in the Community (BITC) about the importance of a company having both environmental and social policies.

“Many successful members of the BITC such as BT and Marks & Spencer have meaningful and significant CSR and environmental policies,” says McNeil, whose organisation promotes best environmental and social practice amongst the UK’s business community.

And what of those companies such as Amstrad which have no policy on climate change?

“We’re inexorably moving towards a low-carbon economy and if you’re not engaging on these issues then you’re going to be left behind,” replies McNeil bluntly. “If you’re not developing and changing your business to meet the challenges of climate change then you’re going to have a competitive disadvantage and your reputation will be damaged.”

But should we really be surprised that the UK’s newly-found business hero is seemingly oblivious to his environmental and social responsibilities?

Earlier this year a survey was carried out by YouGov for the accounting firm KPMG which showed that climate change bumps along on the bottom of the ‘priority list’ of issues for the majority of the biggest businesses in the UK.


85% rubbish?

Of the 73 companies surveyed, over 85% didn’t have any effective strategy in place for dealing with climate change.

And when it comes to those businesses that do have a CSR policy in place, Hannah Ellis from CORE, the organisation that campaigns for greater corporate accountability, believes that most aren’t worth the paper they’re written on: ”The vast majority of CSR policies are nothing more than communication documents and bear little relation to what’s actually happening on the ground,” she says.

“Some of the biggest polluters and most unsustainable businesses are being carried out by multi-national corporations that have the most sophisticated CSR machines within their PR departments.”

“Shell has very slick CSR policies but just look at the environmental problems associated with its oil development in Nigeria,” she points out.

Ellis believes that the only way that we’re going to get businesses from Amstrad to Shell to take their environmental and social responsibilities seriously is for the government to make it compulsory for them to act on these issues.

Last October CORE achieved a partial victory when despite intense lobbying from the business community, the government included a clause within the Companies Act which will require companies to report on their environmental and social impact. Ellis, however, believes that the Government could and should have done much more.

“The Companies Act offered a huge opportunity for the Government to put the UK at the forefront of ethical and socially responsible business,” she claims. “Unfortunately only a small step was taken last Autumn.”

Paul Collins from War on Want which, like Ethical Consumer, is a member of CORE, believes that companies such as Amstrad should wake up to their environmental responsibilities: “Sir Alan may have won recognition for The Apprentice, but he remains a novice on CSR.”

From Ethical Consumer, issue 108, September/October 2007