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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ethics Trumps Sustainability

I posted a blog in January "sustainability is over-rated" in which I posited that sustainability was just one of the principles against which Corporate Responsibility can be judged and practiced. A number of people commented that we should focus on action and not worry too much about terminology. Call me obsessed, but I cannot let it go at that. I believe more and more that ethics underpins sustainability and that we must be able to speak to ethics to be able to resolve some of the most challenging sustainability issues we will face in the future.

The broadly accepted principle of sustainability asks that we use resources in a manner that satisfies current needs without compromising the needs or options of future generations. Who says that the needs of the yet to be conceived, their children and their children’s children ad infinitum, are valued equally highly with the needs of those alive today? The answer is that our predominantly accepted code of ethics tells us that.

If being sustainable turns out to be easy, this might not matter. However, if being sustainable turns out to require behavioral change and perhaps sacrifice, we will need to be able to articulate and defend the ethical foundation on which it is based. To illustrate, I like to look at another view of the world……..

At BSR last year, many others and I listened to an inspiring plenary highlight by Zhang Yue Chairman and CEO of BROAD air conditioning in China. We all felt so good listening to a fantastically successful Chinese businessman talk about all he achieved through his environmentally friendly business approach. But you could hear the sharp intake of Westerners’ breath when he stated that of course he fired any employee who had more than one child, because more than one child per family was not consistent with a sustainable population and planet. This contrast in values is fundamentally an ethics question.

I recently read Practical Ethics by Peter Singer. It provided me with a structure to step back from my inherited values and look at them from an external perspective. I have not changed my views (that much!), but I understand them and their heritage much better. I also learned that our approach to sustainability is rooted in ethics and that some of our most difficult dilemmas, in particular when two good outcomes compete in a zero sum game, need to be sorted with the help of ethics, before we can apply sustainability correctly.


  1. I'd generally endorse Kevin's. Aristotle said a person of integrity is one who brings together many different virtues, all of which are necessary for moral excellence. I don't know that Aristotle had sustainability per se in mind, but I'd bet he'd include it were he writing in the 21st Century...along with many others as Kevin notes. For instance, many materials needed to produce our high tech products come from areas rife with conflict. Tech has a lot of sustainability advantages, but if the price of that is child labor to mine the minerals to produce a high-tech product? Which do we priortize, human rights or sustainability? To be sure, sustainability does entail human rights too, but I think Kevin's point is many virtues count, not just one. That makes the work of a corporate ethics officer harder, but it can't be avoided.

  2. There is one development scholar by the name of Robert Chambers who pointed out that realities are multiple and therefore any well meaning development practitioner (in this case environmental sustainability activist or advocate) should consider this in their conceptualization of issues and creation of plans.

    Has anyone ever considered the possibility of clutching at a serpent?, its not possibility until you are drowning and yes, that is called survival mode... the instinct is, even if you get bitten, at least you will catch the next breath. In this whole ethics debate, we should consider whats exactly is the physical, social and political basis upon which different people establish their ethical imperatives. this consideration will help us ensure that our ethics are sustainable, that is based on consensus and practcable.

    In other words, the assumption that ethics are universally applied may need to be questioned Kevin. Which is what this Chinese business guy may have illustrated in his admission and celebration. In africa, issues of environmentally conservation have become problematic because in most cases human survival is sacrificed at the alter of animal or environmental conservation.

    Surely, do we really expect a a hungry man preserve rabbit? Or a poor government invest in clean energy? The poor man needs food and the poor government needs cheap energy and if that energy is coal, what the hack, thats a solution. Before these tow sit at your table to discuss ethics about conservation, they need to deal with the most immediate concerns-survival.

    My point is, lets think about the multiple realities that inform our ethical imperatives and once we respect those, then we will achieve multiple, varied but mutually reinforcing ethics across the divide.

  3. Tim, Thabani, thank you both for your thoughtful responses. Your individual experiences and approaches significantly enhances the underlying theme that our Westernized view of sustainability is only one of a number of potentially conflicting good causes. Thabani, I guess I do think that there can be universal ethical standards, but I accept completely that how they apply to a hungry child in Africa, to a family in China or to a wealthy Westerner would be very different.