New Internationalist

Is ‘ethical wealth’ a contradiction?

Issue 441

Can the accumulation of personal wealth be a positive force in the world? Or is the good that can be done by rich individuals outweighed by the negative effects that extreme disparities of wealth have on society?

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Well… there’s nothing innately immoral about wealth, or virtuous about frugality. I’m broke, but in terms of sheer physical luxury, I live better than a medieval baron (although my flat is a lot smaller than a castle, and no-one’s trembling at my commands.) If everyone in the world was a millionaire – then so what? It’s comparative wealth and consumption that’s the issue – particularly in the light of environmental constraints.

Global poverty is a symptom of global wealth – the riches of the few, no matter how hard they’ve worked, haven’t simply appeared from nowhere… any more than the wealth of a Victorian mill owner came from nowhere. Profits are created at the base of the global labour pyramid, and the only reason such lifestyles are available to anyone is because the majority are paid a pittance for their hard work.

Yes, the wealthy can be a philanthropic influence for good, should the mood take them. But this ignores a very simple question – in a world where democratic equality is seen as a virtue, by what right have they acquired this influence in the first place? If being a multi-millionaire in a world where thousands of children die of malnutrition isn’t unethical, then what is?


I agree that for those of us living in wealthy societies that have shelter, food and good health, everything else is comparative. The fact that any child dies of malnutrition in a world that knows how to feed everyone is a crime that each of us must take responsibility for.

Entrepreneurs, ethical or otherwise, provide a service to society. Due to a psychological drive to better themselves and those around them, they create something. There are seven founders of Lush and we invent our products and teach others to manufacture them. We put them in shops that we rent and fit out, then teach more colleagues how to explain them to customers. We fund this ourselves with a little help from the bank, and practise the business until we learn enough to make the profit that ensures secure and gainful employment. So I argue that it’s not just how the pie is cut up, it’s the fact that there’s a pie at all.

My motivation when I was asked by my colleagues to help start Lush was to feed my family and pay the mortgage. That done, I was curious to see if I could get people using unpackaged, unpreserved fresh cosmetics. At one time I was so frightened that I had spoilt the first by pushing the second that the others banned me from the shops.

Once you have invented a shampoo with no bottle and can stop millions of unneeded bottles going to landfill, it could be argued that you should have plenty of stores worldwide to make sure responsible people can get hold of the stuff. Once you have these stores it’s fun to see what else can be done with them. If you then decide that what you want to do is highlight issues you care about that need some action taken, it’s faster, easier and less frustrating if you pay for it yourself.


I agree that entrepreneurs are crucial. But if we simply dismiss the idea of a moral limit to how much of the world’s wealth one person should be allowed to take, isn’t that just blatantly denying that there’s such a thing as greed? What else does the word mean? Should there be no moral restraints on the acquisition of profit? Particularly since the wealthy élite represents unelected, undemocratic power, of the kind that Rupert Murdoch wields?

We may be in denial about it, but the proportion by which the global pie is cut up (in other words, who gets paid what for their labour) is the fundamental reason why people are impoverished; 20 per cent of the world’s population control 80 per cent of its wealth. The more people we have insisting they deserve an extravagant reward for their efforts from the limited share of what’s available, the less economic space there is within which others can obtain a living wage.

I don’t deny entrepreneurs deserve a comparative wage incentive, but because I also think there is such a thing as disproportionate wealth, I’d suggest an ethical solution would consist of an across-the-board, fixed ratio between the highest and lowest wage within any given company, country or other economic entity. How about 10 to 1? 20 to 1? Or shall we stick with business as usual and say ‘it’s ethically OK just to accumulate as much wealth as you can get away with’?


I agree that ethical wealth is a contradiction, but not for your reasons. I think money should work, and try to remember Gibran’s advice in The Prophet: ‘Is not dread of thirst, when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?’

You quote Pareto’s rule that 20 per cent of the world’s population control 80 per cent of its wealth. I wonder if this has ever been true? One of the current estimates gives 10 per cent control of 85 per cent of the world’s assets. Nevertheless, if you don’t mind, I’d like to suggest a couple of my own rules.

Constantine’s first rule of money: all money is not of equal value. A small sum of money in the right hands will always outperform a large sum of money in any hands. I would suggest for example that the $4,000 that Anita Roddick started the Body Shop with was worth far more than the $1 billion that L’Oréal paid for it.

Constantine’s second rule of money: money is worth more when valued highly and worked hard: $80,000 in the hands of an anti-fox hunting activist group will be more valued and worked more effectively than the $4 million spent annually on influencing British MPs by a pro-fox-hunting pressure group. I believe that when activist groups get hold of small sums of money and take on large vested interests they have the potential to create more positive social change than the last 13 years of Labour government in Britain.

While I’m being practical, let’s face it – I, as a perfumer, or come to that, you, as a writer – are fortunate when people value our products enough to give us any of their money. Come the revolution I doubt if either of us would be missed. What is a bit disconcerting is that so many more people value Rupert Murdoch’s products so highly. Perhaps we could persuade our readers to sit in the bath reading the New Internationalist and cancel their Sky subscriptions?


For a second there I thought you were quoting the Emperor Constantine!

I’m not questioning the fact that funds for campaigns can be really effective. I’m trying to have a debate with you about where we should draw the ethical line, in terms of how much wealth one individual is entitled to control… but I get the feeling you don’t want to engage with that point? What is the moral justification for owning millions and millions of pounds, in a world of poverty for the majority? I earn less than $24,000 a year and have no other income or capital, yet I struggle to justify my wealth and lifestyle.

You say you agree ethical wealth is a contradiction, but you don’t say why… how about spilling the beans?

Do you think there is such a thing as a disproportionate amount of wealth? Yes? No? Other?

Are you rejecting the suggestion of a fixed wage ratio? If so, why?

Sitting in the bath reading the New Internationalist sounds like a good idea. Let’s make it compulsory!


I’m not always that sure of my opinions, but let’s abandon debate and I’ll try to answer your questions in reverse order.

Am I rejecting a fixed wage ratio? No, I think they are good guiding principles. When young, I earned so little that I became homeless and was helped back on my feet by charity. On starting Lush, seven of us had no income for a couple of years, and from then until 2008, we drew an average salary with a ratio of less than 1 to 10. In the last three years Lush has made a good profit and the founders and senior staff have drawn dividends.

Do you think there is such a thing as a disproportionate amount of wealth?’ Maybe. The recent financial tsunami was shocking, and the fact that the gamblers involved were exposed yet remain the wealthiest in the world was enlightening. That it still continues (the top 25 hedge fund managers made on average $1 billion each in 2009) is wrong. If I were Emperor Constantine I would phase out stock exchanges, commodity trading, most forms of insurance, and speculating by venture capitalists, governments, pension funds and wealthy trade unions; and I’d reward saving and ethical bank lending with higher interest rates.

What moral justification can there be for owning millions of pounds?’ I worry that capping wealth and inheritance through taxation damages the fabric of a capitalist society. I’ve not read of or experienced other forms of wealth distribution but I would love to be involved in finding one that was successful.

As for ‘spilling the beans’…

Through my life I’ve been involved with selling products that provide ‘values for money’ and ‘money for values’. I like this idea. Customers like it too. Companies like ours are popular targets for venture capitalists and large public companies.

Why do the founders of such ‘ethical’ companies sell? Sometimes the money is too tempting. Mostly they have got into difficulty and taken finance from corporate investors who want a strong profit focus. Sadly, there are very few left in private hands; but a little ‘ethical wealth’ counters temptation and can keep the wolves from the door.

Paul Fitzgerald is a former careworker, now freelance writer and artist. A lifelong activist and member/director of several co-operatively owned small businesses, he was a founding member of ‘Enough’, the anti-consumerism campaign. Mark Constantine is founder and Managing Director of Lush Ltd – a cruelty-free cosmetics company which is now present in 43 countries and has an annual turnover of $340 million. He is also interested in birds, poetry, music and people.

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  1. #1 dozydenise 21 Mar 11

    Mark says 'I worry that capping wealth and inheritance through taxation damages the fabric of a capitalist society' but surely one very easy way to redistribute wealth, at least within a single country, if not across borders, is to raise income tax rates for the super-rich? Provided, of course, the money is then used to good effect (saving some of those thousands of public sector jobs would be a start). And I would also ask: what's wrong with damaging the fabric of a capitalist society - or at least ruffling it up a bit?

  2. #2 Mzungu 22 Mar 11

    For what it's worth, The Bible is overwhelmingly against the accumulation of wealth by individuals - over 200 hundred passages deal wit7h the subject, many more than address any other subject. So for Christians, it should be taboo.

    The reason is partly that wealth is emotionally spiritually and socially destructive - the negatives far outweighing any advantages. Since luxury is an addictive drug, like other addictive drugs such as heroin, the hunger level is ever rising and satisfying it gradually squeezes out other more positive desires. Just as the heroin addict may well kill his mother to get his fix, rich westerners - even well-meaning ’ethical’ ones - feed their addiction at the expense of the poor. The accumulation of major wealth is impossible without expoiting others; western wealth was built and is sustained by slavery (even today), intimidation, theft of resources etc.

  3. #5 Tom Ash 28 Mar 11

    No, people shouldn't keep piles of money while people are dying and suffering for want of it. But this is too often seen as applying only to the super-wealthy in western societies, when the fact is that almost all westerners are super-wealthy by world standards, and our wealth is consequently unethical.

  4. #6 ciderpunx 29 Mar 11

    I think that the interesting thing here isn't ’wealth’ per se but the process of accumulation of money; what it means to 'create' profit in order to 'become' wealthy.

    Rich people are generally rich because they are in a position to expropriate the labour of other (poor) people, right? OK there are edge cases like co-ops or self-employed people where we expropriate our own surplus value, but in general its a case of one lot of people getting the benefit of other people's work. This happens within countries as well as between countries. And if we accept that fairness is an important part of 'ethicalness' then wealth is inherently problematic not in itself or in the quantity of wealth that one controls but because of the social relationship it implies; that of exploitation.

  5. #7 Giedre 29 Mar 11

    ’The rich are rich because the poor are poor.’

  6. #8 tarmindergrover 29 Mar 11

    The question weather ’ethical wealth is a contradiction?’ still maintains the notion that money is the most powerful and important resource for human existence and facilitates humane living conditions. This distorted focus on money as a solution to world poverty and problems, undermines the real lose of humanness amongst both, financially rich and poor.
    I often read the emotive appeals from various charities, demonstrating how people are suffering in the world. And then a overly simplistically solution is put forward ... one dollar or one pound can save the world from becoming less human!! How can problem itself be a solution?

    I don't think it is wealth - which is no more than a resource that allows us to trade - is ethical or unethical. It is the value, importance and power that we have given to wealth that is doing the damage. Financially rich and poor are equally seduced by its powers and the belief that it is a solution to all problems ... is just undermining the true meaning of being human and humane. This mixing of morals with ’things’ that have no identity and meaning of their own, other than the meaning we (as human beings) give to it and giving a meaning to it that actually makes us a slave of it, is self-defeating.

    As long as we remain slaves of wealth, the world's problems are only going to multiply, no matter how it is distributed. But if the debate can be shifted to how can we refrain wealth to enter the political, social and human fields and discuss ethics from human actions rather than the wealth and resources one has; perhaps we can move towards a more harmonious and equal world.

  7. #9 B V Hawkins 29 Mar 11

    Funny, isn't it, that(poor)Paul told us he earned less than $24,000, but (rich) Mark didn't tell us how much he earned?
    Something happens to people when they get rich. I'm not quite sure at what point it becomes noticeable, but looking around me I think it's probabaly already underway by the time a person is earning double the national average wage. There are little signs here and there, assumptions of wealth in others, tell-tale lapses of understanding, failures to grasp the reality of how other people live...
    There's a simple way to be a high earner and be ethical - give the stuff away until you get back to an annual income that is close to the average - and rejoin the planet that most people are on. Mark, it seems, is trying to do something like that, in his way. But I'd still like to know how much he earns and how much of that he gives away.

  8. #10 DoctorLes 29 Mar 11

    I think it happens; there are some good examples, IMHO. For instance, I think George Soros is a hero. No one is completely ethical; I think if one is exceedingly wealthy and yet ethical in most other affairs, it's more praiseworthy than if one is of more modest means and otherwise ethical to approximately the same extent.
    Soros is ethical despite being part of an inherently unethical system: under-regulated Capitalism. Yet he can afford not to be.
    The problem isn't that it's not possible, the problem is that it's less likely to happen. Perhaps worst of all, the rich who are not ethical make a formidable force for the rest of us to deal with.

  9. #11 The Villain 31 Mar 11

    Balzac's maxim that 'behind every great fortune lies a great crime' may yet prove to be a fitting epitaph for capitalism. Inherent in the concept of the free market is corruption and greed. Witness the current crisis and the role played by bankers and their ilk. Witness the wealthy tax-dodgers who squirrel away billions in tax havens. And every company has to rip people off because they will always have charge over the rate for the goods they produce to make a profit. They will always try to push down wages for their workers, again to maximize profits. Conclusion: ethical wealth IS a contradiction!

  10. #12 Topaz 31 Mar 11

    It's undeniable that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has saved huge numbers of lives in Africa. But for every good example - and Mark certainly seem like another one - there are a thousand bad. When I heard recently that the wife of a friend earned a quarter of a million pounds last year I was profoundly shocked. Nobody needs that kind of money. I actually fail to see how anyone can justify earning more than, say, £100,000 a year. The difference between my own averagely middle-class lifestyle and the conditions in most of Africa is quite troubling enough to my conscience as it is.

  11. #13 akbal 14 Apr 11

    I guess another simple argument can be brought up here: what does ’being wealthy’ mean in this world? With my annual income of 8,000 Euros I am extremely poor for many people (most of you? us?) and I am extremely rich for many many more (most of the world!).

    If you become rich with just, right and good ways, then I guess you're an ’ethically correct rich’. If you do something good with your money, then you're an ’ethically correct person’, but ’wealth’ cannot be ethical per se, simply because there is no agreed definition of the term.

  12. #14 KammaKhan 15 Apr 11

    Money controls the flow of ignorance in the material world. Without ignorance, money cannot exist.

  13. #15 Old hippie 16 Apr 11

    I have lived below the poverty line for a period of 9 years.

    I am now wealthy due to hard work and diligence .

    When I was broke I was frustrated that I had to buy mass produced lowest denominator products.

    Now I can pay for organic ,fairtrade, ethical products .

    I want to be wealthier so I can support programs that get things done and not wait for government funding that never comes or has restraints.

    Wealth does not have ethics . People have ethics and I hope that more ethical people gain control of enormous wealth and do some good stuff with it .

    Anyway thanks for letting me have my 20 cents worth

  14. #16 bouget 06 May 11

    Excessive wealth seems prima facie evidence that you pay your employees too little and charge our customers too much.

  15. #17 Paula 29 May 11

    Oddly enough, I read the article while lying in a hot bath preparing to use a Lush solid shampoo to wash my hair.

    I'm not sure that it is ethical to be far wealthier than the rest of society. You might, as a result of market failure, end up earning more than most, but to keep the money and use it for consumption rather than redistribute it would be contrary to my view of what is ethical. We have an individual responsibility to try to even up the balance in the world.

    For example I earn more than my sisters because society chooses to pay more for my profession than for theirs. They work equally hard, and their work is in my view an equally valid contribution to society. But I can even up that balance by giving money to charities, giving money to colleagues overseas facing medical bills that in NZ would be paid by the taxpayer, funding community restoration projects that I run, helping my sisters when they can't make ends meet, and so on.

    It is definitely not ethical to make a lot of money by underpaying labour, shifting factories to other countries to reduce costs if the local workforce and community have been loyal, etc. The aim of running a business should be to contribute to society by providing a good quality product and being a good employer and being a responsible part of the community. Many businesses fail on one or more of those counts, and most don't even seem to think about them.

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This article was originally published in issue 441

New Internationalist Magazine issue 441
Issue 441

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