Oct. 22, 2012. As they begin their careers, today’s business students should look for new ways to balance ethical challenges related to sustainability and the environment, affordable health care and wealth disparities across Third World and developing nations.
That’s according to speakers at the conference “Business Ethics in the 21st Century” sponsored by Appalachian State University’s Walker College of Business. It is possible to achieve corporate profits without further harming the environment, implement new models of providing health care without increased costs, and ensuring that the poor aren’t disenfranchised by growth in business and the cost of health care, they said.
“Make no mistake these topics will have a profound impact on your lives and your careers,” Leigh Dunston, executive in residence in the Walker College of Business said to the business majors attending the conference.
The conference was organized by Dr. Alan E. Singer, the James E. Holshouser Distinguished Professor of Ethics in the college. He said that a growing population and depletion of world resources are global trends that are likely to continue. While failure to address these trends could result in a mega catastrophe, other speakers spoke of opportunities to address potential environmental, health care and wealth disparity crises.
Dr. Hugh Hindman, a professor of labor and human resource management at Appalachian, spoke of the history of sweatshops and their ability to improve income levels of workers in Third World countries. “As awful as conditions might be, it’s where the poor are becoming better off,” he said.
Hindman explained that the outside pressures of public scrutiny, as well as the growing power of workers, means that unsatisfactory work conditions are seldom abided for long. He said conditions usually are less favorable for those who work in smaller factories or in-home settings. “It’s in these settings where the poor are getting poorer and earning lower wages. In the larger factories, the prospects for improvement are much better,” he said.
A focus on the environment and a response to customers’ interest in sustainability is paying off for many businesses, Dr. Heather Fowler-Dixon said. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Management at Appalachian and director of the Transportation Insight Center for Entrepreneurship.
“Will it pay to be green in the future?” she asked. The answer is yes as consumers, potential employees and investors look to companies with established sustainability-focused business practices, she said.
“Waste is not efficient, it’s expensive,” she said. She pointed to General Motors and Bank of America as examples of companies whose focus on sustainability resulted in significant savings. When Bank of America changed the paper stock used to print ATM receipts, it netted a $500,000 savings a year. General Motors’ move to make its plants and facilities landfill free has saved about $1 billion in revenue annually from selling scrap byproducts.
“You can have both,” Dixon-Fowler said of economic growth and environmental responsibility.
Another hot topic was access to and the cost of health care.
“Medical care isn’t good for you,” said Jonathan Kotch, M.D., “and technology won’t set us free.” Kotch is a faculty member in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. He said that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data indicates that improvement in life expectancy in the United States is the result of genetics, environment and behavior.
“Only 10 to 15 percent of that improvement can be attributed to hands-on, personal health care,” he said. Medical errors kill between 44,000 and 98,000 people a year, he added. “I would say that an institution that kills that many people isn’t necessarily good for you.”
Technology contributes to the high cost of health care, Kotch said. Referring to a report from the Institute of Medicine, Kotch said, “The U.S. healthcare system wastes $750 billion a year or 30 percent of the entire health care expenditure of the United States, wasted because of unnecessary services most of which are technology, excessive administrative costs, fraud and other inefficiencies.”
Free market competition has resulted in health care monopolies in large population centers, which has also increased the cost of health care.
Access to better consumer and health information could help control health care costs, he said. “Fully informed, literate consumers are the best patients,” he said.
Kotch suggested a new model of health care that relies more on physician’s assistants, nurse practitioners and on alternative therapies as ways to expand health care options without increasing health care costs, rather than having patients always seeking an M.D. or medical specialists.
“We need to think about medical care in a structure other than doctors and patients. Practice says 50 percent of the people who are in a waiting room don’t need immediate health care. We need to take advantage of other kinds of providers,” he said.
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