Behaving unethically is bad for business.
We in the UK don't want to go back to the days of the robber barons, when the only thing that mattered was profits, when buildings collapsed due to insufficient concrete, children were exploited as cheap labour and sweatshops made hats from the feathers of endangered birds.
The cliches that the only business of business is business, and what's good for General Motors is good for the country, have worn very thin indeed.
The corporate scandals that have hit the Why An Ethical Business Is More Likely To Produce A Success Storys recently were all down to unethical business behaviour. These scandals are bad news for staff and shareholders — and also for the businesses themselves. Enron paid the ultimate price of corporate collapse when its executives were jailed.
In the process, it brought down not only its American auditors Arthur Andersen but also its associated British partners, innocent bystanders to their former partner's breach not only of their professional responsibilities but of company law.
The Institute of Business Ethics (IBE) was set up just over 20 years ago, in 1986: the year of the Guinness scandal in the UK and Ivan Boesky in the United States. You might think that not much has changed in those 20 years. But you'd be wrong.
Thanks to the likes of the IBE and many in business, the ethical behaviour of business has shot up the boardroom agenda. Management and shareholders alike know that a business that is not run ethically is likely to be a bad business proposition.
Indeed, in 2003 the IBE published a report showing a clear link between business ethics and financial performance.
What have businesses been doing over the years to improve their ethical behaviour? First, they have been putting in place codes of ethics. In 1986, an IBE survey showed that only 18 per cent of larger companies had codes of ethics; by 2006, more than 90 per cent of FTSE 100 companies had one.
But a code of ethics, worthy as it may sound, is only any good if everyone adheres to it. After all, Enron had a very good code of ethics — it's just that it was ignored by executives who exploited their positions.
They were checked neither by their own code of ethics nor the law of the land, and they escaped scrutiny from their auditors, their board and their non-executive directors.
Much thinking going on in recent years is about how to embed a code of ethics within an organisation to ensure it becomes part of the corporate DNA, rather than a tedious document to be left in a drawer collecting dust.
A great many more companies and their advisers are working on better ways of embedding ethical behaviour within their organisations. And, of course, part of that is not just about embedding it, but also about monitoring and policing the codes of ethics.
This involves every single person in a business; every employee must feel enabled to speak up about any instance of unethical behaviour they may come across — and they must know that something is going to be done about it.
Improving ethical behaviour is not just good for particular businesses, but for the whole business community in general.
Last year, an Ipsos Mori poll showed that over the past three years there has been a significant rise in the number of people who believe British businesses behave ethically.
In 2003, fewer than half of adults (48pc) believed that British business behaved very or fairly ethically. In 2006, that figure had risen to 58pc. This has to be good for every stakeholder, employee, customer and supplier.
But as the all too frequent corporate scandals show, we still have some way to go in ensuring business ethics are an integral part of the life of every business.
A key issue for the next generation of business leaders will be to improve the ways in which ethics are managed within their business. It is to them that we must look for fresh thinking and for answers on how existing ideas might be applied as new issues arise.
For example, will the rise in private equity ownership of some of our larger companies result in less transparency and, therefore, less concern about ethical behaviour?
It is to help stimulate and encourage this fresh thinking that the Institute of Business Ethics is delighted to be associated with The Daily Telegraph in promoting the IBE's annual Student Essay Competition in Business Ethics. This competition is open to any student in the UK and involves submitting an essay on some aspect of business ethics.
We greatly look forward to receiving your entries, of which the winning one will be published by The Daily Telegraph.
I would be surprised if there is a FTSE chairman who would disagree with HSBC's chairman, Stephen Green, when he said recently: "Business ethics is now more important than ever." But it is also clear that this area will become ever more important in the future.
This article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph