Responsible Business Conduct: The Ethical Principles of the “Honourable Merchant” Should be Applied Abroad, Too.

German Industry is and has been committed to the principle of sustainability and the values of the “honourable merchant”. Voluntary international sustainability standards are of high importance for German companies. Preserving German industry’s competitiveness is a prerequisite to act in the endeavour of advancing sustainability worldwide.

German industry is characterized by strong sustainable business practices. We are guided by the ethical principles of an “honourable merchant”. I am aware that this concept of ethical business is sometimes misapplied or romanticised. But its essence, with its clear focus on decency and respect, responsibility and integrity, remains true to this day. Companies which act according to this tradition behave in line with the ethical values of our society. They link the entrepreneur’s need for profit, growth, and success with society’s desire for prosperity, favorable social, ecological and labour conditions, as well as continuous innovation

Unfortunately, companies sometimes struggle to live up to these principles on the global scale. The reasons are manifold. Some companies have not yet adapted their management structures well enough to the global challenges. And sometimes companies underestimate the challenges in global markets, for example in the areas of environmental and social standards. But frequently the reason companies find it hard to live up to expectations is that it is increasingly difficult to define the limits of corporate influence in an ever more complex global economy.

Nonetheless, I remain convinced that the ethical principles of the “honourable merchant” should guide the global economy. After all, industry shares the same objective as politics: to enable people to live good lives under stable conditions.

The high standard applies both to German companies operating at home and abroad. This is important, as supply and value chains become increasingly globalised. In order to keep them sustainable, voluntary standards for sustainable business, guidelines for companies and international standards – jointly developed with the business community – can be helpful.

High standards must apply globally

BDI has always backed the United Nations Millennium Development Goals and the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Furthermore, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are highly relevant for our companies. We are equally aware of our responsibility for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations last fall.

At the same time, preserving competitiveness is the precondition for sustainable global development. Only competitive companies are viable and able to engage in countries where the challenges are more pressing than at home. One way to do this are public-private partnerships.

BDI is actively developing sustainability concepts

German industry should use all possibilities for advancing the international sustainability goals. At BDI, we have bundled all the dimensions of sustainability policy in a dedicated working group. Together with its initiative econsense – Forum for Sustainable Development of German Business - BDI is actively participating in the respective political process. In July 2016, at the United Nations in New York, NGOs and trade unions took a stand together with the BDI in presenting a statement on advancing our common ideas for a sustainable global agenda.

Internally, too, we work to advance the SDGs, for example in our committees. We want to see our good ideas and technologies applied worldwide, to help more countries to help themselves. This will also contribute to growing competitiveness in other regions of the world.

Concerted international action for sustainability

Despite all efforts, only reliable, favourable frameworks can ensure that German industry is able to thrive in the global economy and to continue making crucial contributions to sustainability through innovative products. This calls for concerted action by all the major economies. A very good forum is the G20, where Germany’s G20 Presidency represents an outstanding opportunity to boost sustainability in the global economy. BDI will contribute to this through the B20 process and places great hopes in Germany’s upcoming G20 Presidency.

Ulrich Grillo is BDI President and CEO of Grillo-Werke AG.