In the dynamic economic landscape of Bangladesh, attention is often captivated by impressive growth and global integration metrics. For instance, the World Bank highlighted Bangladesh's GDP growth rate as 5.2% for 2023 despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the country has achieved significant strides in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) , with a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) showing an increase of 68% in FDI inflows in 2019 compared to the previous year.
Yet, amidst these promising statistics, a critically important facet remains largely underexamined- the state of business ethics. A 2021 Transparency International report placed Bangladesh 147th out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index, illuminating a challenging ethical environment. It should be noted that business ethics constitutes the spinal structure of any sustainable economy and is imperative for long-term success. The gravity of this issue is exemplified by notable scandals and ethical lapses in the country, such as the infamous Rana Plaza tragedy of 2013, which starkly highlighted the consequences of neglecting worker safety standards. Bangladesh's business sector faces substantial ethical dilemmas encompassing corruption, labor exploitation, and environmental degradation. For instance, the International Labour Organization (ILO) reports that approximately 1.2 million children in Bangladesh are involved in labor, which contradicts ethical norms and international labor standards. On the environmental front, a World Bank study points to Bangladesh as one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, with industries often overlooking sustainable practices.
While such challenges are not unique to Bangladesh, the pervasiveness of these issues reveals a critical absence of ethical governance. This void becomes palpably evident when one considers major moral crises. One of them is the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, a catastrophic event that resulted in the loss of over 1,100 lives and was attributed to gross negligence regarding building safety standards. The event resulted in a significant loss of life. It led to a decline in consumer trust, with international brands pulling out or reconsidering their supply chain affiliations with the country.
As Bangladesh aspires to be a formidable competitor in the international arena, the subject of business ethics transcends national boundaries and assumes global significance. Data from the Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that 81% of consumers globally believe that trust in a brand to do what is right is a deal-breaker or deciding factor in their buying decision. Given this emerging consciousness among international investors and consumers, maintaining ethical integrity is not merely an internal prerogative but a non-negotiable aspect of global competitiveness. Failing to align with international ethical standards can have repercussions, such as decreased foreign direct investment or exclusion from global value chains.
A close examination of Bangladesh's textile industry is instructive to capture the full extent of this difficulty. According to the Export Promotion Bureau of Bangladesh, the textile and apparel industry contributes to over 84% of the country's total export earnings as of 2021. However, this economic powerhouse is mired in ethical complications. A report by Human Rights Watch elucidates prevalent issues such as child labor, gender-based wage gaps, and unsafe working conditions. Environmental degradation is another grave concern; a study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production indicates that the textile industry in Bangladesh is responsible for 20% of the water pollution and contributes significantly to the nation's carbon footprint. Thus, an absence of ethical considerations threatens the sustainability and international reputation of one of Bangladesh's most crucial economic sectors.
The repercussions of unethical business practices are far-reaching, extending well beyond corporate confines into the wider society. According to data from the World Bank, 24.3% of the population in Bangladesh lived below the national poverty line as of 2016. Unethical practices, such as labor exploitation and environmental negligence, further exacerbate these existing social disparities. This amplification of inequality has a compounding effect, fostering conditions that can result in broader societal malaise, including civil unrest and escalating poverty.
Addressing the multifaceted ethical challenges ingrained in Bangladesh's business landscape necessitates an integrative approach that amalgamates legal, corporate, social, and educational domains. Here, we elucidate a set of strategies, underpinned by empirical data and examples, that could contribute to alleviating the ethical standards within this emerging economy.
Strengthening laws and regulations to enforce ethical business conduct is an indispensable first step. In countries such as Sweden and Denmark, which rank high on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, stringent laws have proven effective in promoting ethical business practices. Bangladesh could take a cue from these countries by fortifying its legal infrastructure. Implementing punitive measures for violations and incentives for ethical conduct-such as tax benefits for companies meeting specific ethical criteria-can be instrumental. The National Board of Revenue could spearhead this initiative, setting stringent but achievable standards for ethical compliance.
A survey by Ernst and Young reveals that 87% of global consumers consider corporate transparency a crucial factor in their purchasing decisions. Therefore, companies operating in Bangladesh should be subject to stringent accountability and transparency requirements. This might include mandating public disclosure of carbon emissions, labor conditions, and profit margins. Additionally, regular third-party audits could serve as an accountability mechanism. For instance, the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety has employed independent inspections to evaluate the safety standards of various textile factories. This approach could be broadened to cover ethical standards as well.
Creating a robust ethical framework cannot be a unilateral endeavor; it calls for collaboration between multiple stakeholders. A multidimensional dialogue involving the government, corporate entities, and civil society can facilitate the crafting of ethical guidelines that are mutually advantageous. The Philippine Business for Social Progress (PBSP) exemplifies how cross-sectoral collaboration can yield meaningful moral reform in the Philippines. Adopting a similar model can allow for a more dynamic, responsive, ethical ecosystem in Bangladesh.
Lastly, but by no means least, is the role of education in elevating ethical awareness within the business community. The World Economic Forum has cited a strong correlation between education and corruption. Universities and training institutions could integrate ethics as a core component of their business curriculum. Specialized training programs could be developed in partnership with organizations such as the UN Global Compact to target mid- to high-level executives.
As Bangladesh navigates the complexities of rapid economic expansion, the ethical dimensions underlying its business practices warrant rigorous scrutiny. The nation finds itself at an inflection point where ethical considerations cease to be mere adjuncts; they must metamorphose into indispensable facets of core business strategies. The literature on ethical business practices presents a compelling narrative: ethicality is not merely an altruistic endeavor but a sine qua non for sustainable growth and global competitiveness.
Statistical data echo this claim. A report from the Harvard Business Review substantiates the long-term economic benefits of ethical business practices, indicating that companies prioritizing ethical standards outperform their counterparts by nearly 35% in terms of financial returns over five years. This affirms that implementing a robust ethical framework transcends moral righteousness; it serves as a problematic economic imperative.
Therefore, the endeavor to embed ethical considerations within the business milieu of Bangladesh should not be viewed as a cumbersome obligation but as an instrumental mechanism to foster sustainable development and secure a competitive advantage in the global market. It is not only a matter of doing what is morally correct but also what is empirically proven to augment both societal well-being and economic prosperity.
Dr. Mohammad Shahidul Islam, Assistant Professor of Marketing, BRAC Business School, BRAC University, Email: email@example.com
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