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Sustainability and Business Ethics

“Ethics” comes from the Greek word “ethikos” from “ethos,” which means “custom” or “habit.” Human behavior can often be distilled into nothing more than habit—the reoccurring thoughts and belief systems that inform and direct our actions. Habit, however, also connotes automation, behaving unconsciously, compulsively. Engaging without self-analysis in a habitual, customary way.

In terms of the management of our environment, ethics has become the habit from which its name is derived. The rise of corporate social responsibility aims to pave a road to sustainability and equitable treatment of societies, but only when it does not impinge on a business’s goal of profit maximization and growth. National economies, a few, have taken action to curb toxic discharge of effluent into the commons or reduce expulsion of planet-warming greenhouse gases, but lack of a collective moral responsibility to the environment is reaching a new level of harm.

In terms of the management of our environment, ethics has become the habit from which its name is derived.

As the world grows warmer, weather patterns change and ecosystems collapse, survival for many life forms—human and non-human—will become harsher and more violent. As a student of both environmental policy and corporate business sustainability, I ask, where can ethics be evolved past the customary treatment of natural resources, seen valuable only for their utilization, to a place of informed stewardship for the sake of life and the continuation of our wellbeing?

My journey into questioning business ethics began during my work in cancer research as a manager for lymphoma clinical trials. I worked with research teams, oncologists and nurses to test experimental chemotherapies on patients and look for signs of response. Cancer is an elusive illness, its cause opaque and often unknown. Lymphoma especially, is noted for its sudden presence unlinked to the usual suspects of heredity, viral infections or poor lifestyle choices. In fact, one of the only researched links to lymphoma development has been from repeated exposure to pesticides, showing a high correlation between disease development and exposure. This inspired me to explore the connection between cancer development and environmental conditions, an association much stronger than I would have supposed. The World Health Organization, for example, states that up to 85% of cancers are caused from environmental toxicity.

As I traversed labyrinthine hospital corridors, dropping off blood and picking up test results, I could not help but question the mission of the hospital. How could it justify spending millions of public and private funds on cancer therapies, when the pathogenesis of most disease stemmed from toxins in the environment with no immediate trajectory for decrease? And, if pesticide companies knew that the spraying of their products were making people ill and dying painful, expensive deaths, do they not have a moral obligation to reconstruct a more benign chemistry or discontinue its sale?

I followed my inquiry concerning disease development from the environment. My path led me to pursue masters in environmental policy and sustainable business in order to influence health conditions from their source. During graduate school, several of my questions regarding the business of health and agriculture were answered. Pharmaceutical companies, who hoped to find new drugs that could reliably lengthen the lives of paying patients, sponsored most of the clinical trials I managed. The cost of running trials is enormous, but so are the rewards if the Food and Drug Administration approves a new patented pharmaceutical. Preventative costs, such as reducing the amount of people who arrive in the hospital by lessening their toxicity exposure, provides no such pay off.

Pesticide companies also have tremendous costs related to research and development, running experimental trials of their own, and manufacturing of the pesticide product. More pesticide is sold to offset the costs of its production, and provide shareholders with a return for their investment. If a large market of purchasing customers remains (who are likely unaware of exposure risks), there is no impetus for such a company to re-make its product or ever terminate production. Individual actors operating in a free market are unlikely to consider the ethical implications of their actions, unless it costs them in competitive advantage. Such costly risks, such as reputational risk, are the cache of sustainability professionals, hoping to translate ethical actions into a business case.

Such costly risks, such as reputational risk, are the cache of sustainability professionals, hoping to translate ethical actions into a business case.

To me, sustainability is a modern form of business ethics, seeking to rectify damages to the environment, disadvantaged communities and silenced employees, and requiring transparency in the governance of corporations. The field itself tows a narrow line between artificially boosting company reputation through creative public relations campaigns or “green washing,” and integrating real, long term change into business operations. Unlike pure ethics, however, sustainability offers a carrot to corporations in the form of intangible and tangible benefits to its bottom line from focusing on non-financial components.

For example, this summer I worked within the headquarters of Dunkin’ Brands, designing an energy and water efficient construction plan for new Dunkin’ Donuts restaurants. The design had the potential to save franchisee restaurant owners $2,000 a year on average from utility bill savings, as well as reduce the national carbon footprint of the popular quick service restaurant chain. Serving the economic needs of the company, enhancing its reputation as a progressive and responsible entity, as well as affirming its commitment to reduce contributions to global warming, proved to be something that felt both ethical and empowering. Still, I wondered if in the long run, I could truly support a company that enabled customers and their families a quick pathway to health concerns. As I continue to develop as a sustainable business professional, what insight can I gather from greater knowledge of business ethics and its nuances?

When unsustainable depletion of resources today results in absence tomorrow of life-giving ecosystem services, like clean air, water and tillable soil, are companies not trekking on questionable ground for their actions? And us, individuals, who compile the vast mechanisms that are transnational corporations, do we not need to distance ourselves from our habitual, often destructive, behavior to actively inquire if our choices are correct? These are questions I hope to unpack in order to engage in the self-analysis needed to lead others away from harmful habits into a transformed way of relating to each other and our environment.

According to reports by the U.S. Department of Defense, among others, climate change will bring very different times ahead of us in the global economic and environmental landscape, likely resulting in unfortunate conditions. In order to navigate these changes wisely, both as a business professional and maturing individual, I seek a deeper understanding of not only business’s role in society, but also how to apply ethical considerations in the face of unsupportive and challenging circumstances.

This article is also featured publication for Radius.1.