Cowton, Christopher J. and San-José, Leire (2017) On the Ethics of Trade Credit: Understanding Good Payment Practice in the Supply Chain. Journal of business ethics, 140 (4). pp. 673-685. ISSN 1573-0697

In spite of its commercial importance and signs of clear concern in public policy arenas, trade credit has not been subjected to systematic, extended analysis in the business ethics literature, even where suppliers as a stakeholder group have been considered. This paper makes the case for serious consideration of the ethics of trade credit and explores the issues surrounding slow payment of debts. It discusses trade debt as a kind of promise, but— noting that not all promises are good ones—goes on to develop an analysis of the ethics of trade credit grounded in an understanding of its fundamental purpose. Making a distinction between ‘‘operating’’ trade credit and ‘‘financial’’ trade credit, the paper provides an account of the maximum period for which it is appropriate for one company to delay payment to another from which it has purchased goods or services. The concern of commentators and policy makers that companies should not take too long to pay their debts is affirmed, but the understanding of what timely payment means is significantly finessed, with one conclusion being that, if debts have not already been settled according to acceptable standard terms of trade, cash should pass quickly back along the supply chain once the customer in the final product market has paid. The analysis has implications not only for companies that take credit but also for external parties that seek to rate companies or set regulations according to speed of payment—an approach that is shown to be misleadingly simplistic, albeit well intentioned. A corresponding important responsibility for
suppliers, not to extend excessive credit (and thus act as a quasi-bank), also follows from the analysis developed. Having provided a novel analysis of an important business problem, the paper then discusses some of the related practical issues and makes suggestions for further research.

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