Arms trading has always been a touchy subject, and defence shows have always attracted opponents to war. So it is no surprise that the Defence Systems & Equipment international exhibition (DSEi) held in London this week has attracted outside attention. The only thing that is a surprise is how small that attention is.

Given the current climate – with troops in Afghanistan, a convicted Lockerbie bomber out of prison and back in Libya, and suggestions throughout the last year that trade deals were being made around the world despite bans on ethical grounds – you would almost expect protests against DSEi to be much larger.

Security was increased for this year's show – what was a half hour journey from the city centre by light rail to the conference centre is now a 45-minute escorted journey – but still, the protests seemed minimal.

“Arms trading has always been a touchy subject, and defence shows have always attracted opponents.”

That does not mean the industry, however, should not take note of the vocal cry from those that did demonstrate – a timely reminder that ethics should always come first in any business dealing, especially when it involves such sensitive issues such as public lives and funds.

How to teach ethics

Vendors know ethics are intrinsic to their long-term success. Governments in the western world will, with enough of a nudge, bow to constituents' desires when it comes to spending on war. The UK is a clear example of this – just this week the government announced it may remove funds from the Trident nuclear missile programme and put them instead into the much-needed area of health.

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By GlobalData

But vendors also stand to lose a lot when ethics are brought into the equation. It was rumoured that a Libyan trade delegation, for example, was to visit DSEi this week (Scotland recently handed over a man alleged to be responsible for the Lockerbie bombings that killed 270 on a US-bound plane and on the ground in Scotland in 1988. Suffering from cancer, it was claimed he was released from prison on compassionate grounds, but since his release allegations of arms and oil and gas trade deals,
which previously weren't known to the UK, have raised issues of ethical concern.) And, at the last DSEi, two years ago, controversy ensued when a Chinese delegation visited despite an EU embargo on arms deals with the growing nation.

Despite this, DSEi does know the value of ethics. Ethical business is one of the overriding topics in its conference programme this year. Fledgling UK aerospace and trade body ADS (Aerospace, Defence and Security) is also placing ethics at the forefront of its practice. In a release issued for DSEi, it said the defence industry is ethical, despite public opinion, and that shows such as DSEi should show how the industry is dealing with issues in a responsible light.

Opportunities for ethics

So it was interesting to see that most of the ethical programme focused on small to medium-sized businesses (and how the ADS hinged its talk at DSEi on ethics in aerospace towards this as well) this year.

“Ethical business is one of the overriding topics in the DSEi 2009 conference programme.”

It could be a sign of the credit crunch – at the Paris Air Show this year larger companies cutting costs cleared the floor creating new opportunities for the small to mid-size market. But this still does not address the issue at large – how the companies that have been highlighted in the press are dealing with ethical smears and negative public opinion.

During a credit crisis, one would think winning business would be paramount to survival, and in arms, goodwill (not only from other nations and companies but from the people whose taxes fund arms purchases) would become even more important. Weapons trading is a touchy topic, it always will be, and vendors have to be careful how they are portrayed.

Defence shows such as DSEi that offer a platform for industry, can be positive if the message portrayed is right – both to the public and throughout the industry itself. Hence, ethical programmes should go further than the smaller end of the scale. Small business may pick up a thing or two but it is big business that shapes how the industry is run, and big business needs ethics too.