BACK IN 1859, John Stuart Mill wrote that people of right thinking minds could do whatever they wanted so long as they did not harm anyone else. If Mill's words had been put into practice by industries, individuals and governments, we would not be reading so much about pollution these days. One of the root causes of pollution can be linked to the fact that people enjoy the benefits of goods and services without paying for their external costs. From one point of view, this low-cost position suits consumers, businesses and governments. Lower costs translate to lower prices, higher sales and better profits for businesses. Consumers prefer lower prices and it leads to higher consumption. Governments, which are often re-elected on economic performance, benefit from high consumption levels because this is the easiest way to achieve economic growth and reap the associated benefits of wealth and employment. However, the smog in Hong Kong and the foul air are representative of the other aspect - that people stand to lose when external costs, such as the effect on the environment, are not factored into the price of products. In the past century, the free market in industrial democracies has raised living standards and life expectancy. The United Nations wants to support the free market with the concept of 'stable and just societies' under its Global Compact project, which aims to promote discussion between business, governments and NGOs. Carrying the United Nations torch in Hong Kong is the Global Institute for Tomorrow (GIFT). Set up in 2004, GIFT is a non-profit-making organisation aimed at connecting businesses, public policy and civil society to meet the challenges of globalisation in Asia. Thomas Tang, managing director of GIFT, believes that, despite apparent contradictions, government, business and society do have a common platform. 'Organisations have their own goals underpinned by values that they sometimes conveniently put aside. We try to remind organisations that it is not just about the pursuit of profit. We look at how stakeholders can have a more effective dialogue to solve problems,' Dr Tang said. 'China is doing well economically but the environment and society are suffering. At GIFT we are trying to balance the three. We help industry and government tackle environmental, social and political issues. That is how we position ourselves,' he said. To support its research, GIFT provides services such as seminars, research, advisory work and leadership training. 'We provide advice that will serve a social goal. We do this by using traditional consultancy methods of research, analysis and reporting - all the things consultants do - but for social and environmental outcomes,' Dr Tang said. GIFT runs a young leaders' programme, which aims to develop leadership, teamwork and communication skills for young executives. Those in the programme work on real projects for about two weeks. The next project, planned for later this year, will be based around a village in Yunan province where the villagers live a subsistence lifestyle. The villagers grow cash crops such as nuts and mushrooms. GIFT aims to help them develop these cash crops into a business by selling them outside the village and using the income to develop schools, health clinics and running water, which will help the villagers enhance their quality of life and break out of the poverty cycle. 'We are different from outward-bound projects. We get those in the programme to develop a business model appropriate for a community project and physically get involved in helping that community,' Dr Tang said. Those on the project will look at accounting systems to measure income and also study the ecological impact of planting crops to find the best way of planting them without damaging the ecosystem. According to Dr Tang, young leaders can help facilitate change in these villages because the organisation has taught them to respect the environment. 'We are not there to encourage globalisation but to help them make the most of the opportunity to sell these cash crops at a premium value. We aim to build capacity. It is better to teach a man to fish than give him a fish,' Dr Tang said. GIFT plans to attract and reward bright people to work on such projects and is offering a variety of opportunities. 'A graduate brings energy and enthusiasm because at that point they are still idealistic. Mature entrants will bring experience of working in a business and aligning business with social interests,' Dr Tang said. 'Those interested in this area must set themselves different benchmarks. They cannot compare their salaries with those of investment bankers.' However, GIFT pays better than other NGOs. Dr Tang believes the work is interesting because it involves advising multinationals and governments about stakeholder issues, ethical behaviour and relevant policies.