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.