Turmoil in the markets, and company spending coming under increasing pressure has many people spooked about the size of 2009's business ethics budgets. But the world's largest retailer's recent announcement shows sustainability is still important, even in a downturn.

Tempting as it is to cheerlead for the responsible business community, which faces the financial squeeze along with everyone else, we must be realistic about the prospects for next year.

Clearly money is going to be tighter all round. And we are hearing of some CSR budgets by big companies that may be cut by as much as 50%. Bleak news.

So despite all the feel good articles (some published by this magazine) in the last year saying responsible business ideas won't be affected by the market chaos, its obvious that there will be less cash about, and companies, rightly, will be watching what they spend. Nothing is immune from the red pen of the CFO right now.

But Wal-Mart's news that it plans to ask suppliers to work harder on business ethics or face the chop shows that we need to keep some perspective about the glum outlook.

No-one (including the Financial Times) knows how long the recession will last. Half of what one reads says long and deep, the other half shallow and temporary.

Whichever is the case, companies are going to need to try and stay as true to their modern principles as they can.

Which is why, while the corporate sustainability juggernaut may have slowed for a bit, its not going to grind to a halt while firms like Wal-Mart are pushing for higher standards.

In a recession reputation matters just as much, if not more, than in the good times. And business ethics is not quite so fluffy as it was. Supply chain risk management is now a lot less about keeping NGOs off the backs of business and out of the newspapers than it is about not poisoning your customers, their pets or accidentally harming their children.

This downturn will be a fascinating test for advocates in companies of responsible business. Every penny spent will have be justified, and will have to count.

So while medium and long term investments may struggle to be passed fit to spend on by CFOs, there are plenty of more immediate areas where sustainability and responsible business ideas can be used to generate some savings. Not least supply chain recalls, along with climate change, marketing and how you treat and engage with customers.

It's going to be an interesting year in 2009. But I'm sure I speak for most of us when I say that I would rather were were in 2010 already...

More about Wal-Mart's green journey in a special report from our print magazine recently is here

If you are interested in green and ethical corporate supply chains. This event in New York coming up in February might be interesting: www.ethicalcorp.com/supplychainusa

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