Business Ethics and Sustainable Development
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Ethics is the study of human behavior, encompassing the rational dimension of morality, which “is concerned with the norms, values and beliefs embedded in social processes which define right and wrong for an individual community” (Crane and Matten 2004:11). When such principles, as postulated by Steiner and Steiner (2003), are entrenched in business operations, often in codified or written form (Harris 2002), these fall under the term “business ethics.” This refers to when business actions, situations, activities, and decisions at an individual or corporate level are taken with moral adequacy being the main crux (Goodpaster 1998; Crane and Matten 2010:5).
Even though the phrase Good ethics is good business has gained reconnaissance in corporate discourse, it should not be considered as a panacea applied universally and utopically in each and every context to justify its implementation. As Singer (2018) states, the legal and political context, which determines the market system influencing a particular corporation, should be first and foremost considered.
Therefore, it is wise and propitious to reflect more upon business ethics to achieve sustainability in ever-changing times. Coming to terms with and relieving the plight of economic instability, relentless globalization, corruption, and new paradigms has left its toll upon many corporations, time and again enmeshing them in cut-throat competition. More often than not, all this results in unsound, illegal, or immoral decisions that are far from being sustainable. Hence, the arduous task to incorporate ethics and sustainability within any corporation has been felt ever since the formulation of Agenda 21 in 1992, as stressed in Chapter 30.
On the other hand, the Brundtlandian vision of sustainable development has laid the foundations for the definitions pertaining to “sustainable business,” since these embrace the notions of needs, futurity, and equity, molded to befit the business arena:
adopting business strategies and activities that meet the needs of the enterprise and its stakeholders today while protecting, sustaining, and enhancing the human and natural resources that will be needed in the future. (IISD et al. 1992:1)
Although many argue that ethics and sustainability do not share common ground, since the former is coined with a set of standards and the latter is regarded as a process, both are of burgeoning importance in a corporation’s commitment towards society. They are essential to make sure that decisions are economically viable to reap the profit desired, ethically aware of people’s varying needs and also environmental friendly to fulfill such goals within the earth’s carrying capacity.
The Need for Business Ethics and Sustainability
According to Bowie (1989 as cited in Hoffman 1991), a corporation’s main aim is profit maximization, subject to a number of constraints, such as governmental legislation:
Business does not have an obligation to protect the environment over and above what is required by law; however it does have a moral obligation to avoid intervening in the political arena in order to defeat or weaken environmental legislation.
Doing more and above than such rules is unfair, since according to Friedman (1970), corporations are inanimate units that do not have any kind of responsibilities, including even environmental concerns, since these are considered as “side constraints upon business’s pursuit of profit” (DesJardins 2007).
To demand the availability of environmental friendly products from the business or
To encourage legislation that binds any business to act in a sustainable manner
Failing to do so, the business has no ethical responsibility to promote sustainability. It may continue to focus on profit maximization, albeit harmful towards the environment.
Bowie’s (1989 as cited in Hoffman 1991) ideology promotes more of a bottom-up approach, since consumers have a pivotal role in changing mindsets – either that of the government or the business itself. This contrasts the ideology of Kofi Annan who, during the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg, pointed out that corporate sector has a pivotal role in implementing sustainability since it possesses the required resources:
And more and more we are realizing that it is only by mobilizing the corporate sector that we can make significant progress. The corporate sector has the finances, the technology and the management to make this happen. (Annan 2002, para. 5–6 as cited by Witt 2012)
These diverging viewpoints should make one discern that no matter what any corporation can give new impetus to the pillars of sustainability, which are affected in a variety of ways and at different levels through business activities:
Organisms are affected by hunting, fishing, agriculture, and animal testing.
Natural habitats and ecosystems are disturbed by deforestation, mining, construction, and pollution.
Planet earth is affected by activities causing species’ extinction and climate change (Zsolnai 1996).
People often resort to lobbying (Hamilton and Hoch 1997) to put pressure on other organizations or the government to take action.
Child labor, poor working conditions, and low wages often breach human rights (Muchlinski 2012).
Fair trade (Jaffee 2010) takes into consideration the well-being of people, their produce, and even their income.
Health hazards affect employees and even the community, mainly through different forms of pollution.
Bribery (Weber and Getz 2004) affects economic outcomes and operations within the corporation and society.
Supply chain responsibility (van Tulder et al. 2009) influences production of resources, human resources, and values.
Giving importance to culture could increase corporation’s efficiency and competitive position (Barney 1986).
Due to globalization, multinational companies affect the organizational culture of other smaller corporations and that of the community.
Decreasing harm to society
Fostering industrial relations
Increasing employee productivity
Diminishing criminal penalties
Preventing actions which are of detriment to employees
Allowing employees to act coherently with their personal ethical beliefs
Different Dimensions of Business Ethics
A behavioral system, which takes into account the needs that determine one’s actions
A personal system, which gives importance to internal motives that affect one’s actions with the desired outcomes
A social system, which focuses on roles, that encourages concerned actors to interact
A cultural system, which emphasizes on the system’s norms, and attitudes. These determine the interaction between different actors within this system
The supraculture which refers to the economic and political forces shared by nations
The macroculture which focuses on the national identity and origins shared by people
The mesoculture which emphasizes on the norms shared by groups or communities within a macroculture
The microculture which gives prominence to norms and values shared by the smallest social groups such as an organization, family or clan (Srnka 2004)
These cultural levels do not function in isolation but often manifest themselves within corporations, which act as a microcosm of the national culture. At times, this leads to the formation of “a culture within a culture” since the wider cultural environment, comprising of the supraculture and macroculture, leaves its imprint on the confined corporate cultural environment made of the mescoculture and microculture.
Power distance means the degree of inequality in the distribution of power. A culture which accepts high power distance will accept uneven distribution of power in a corporation.
Uncertainty avoidance dimension focuses on the threat of ambiguity that members of a community feel threatened by.
Dimensions of individualism means that a society emphasizes on the expectation that every individual is responsible for one’s wellbeing. On the other hand, collectivism encourages a sense of cohesion.
Masculinity versus femininity focuses on the division of emotional roles. Masculinity implies that society observes dominant social roles by gender (Hofstede 2001) based on assertiveness and competitiveness, whereas femininity takes into account gender roles overlap (Hofstede and Hofsted 2005) focusing on modesty, solidarity, and nurturance.
Long-term versus short-term orientation refers to the culture’s orientation. Long-term orientation emphasizes mostly on future rewards, while short-term is more inclined towards rapid results, high consumption, and low savings (Hofstede 2001).
The nature of people – Are people good, neutral or evil?
Relationship with people – Is the relationship individualistic (importance given to the person), collateral (importance given to the welfare of groups), or lineal (ordered position within groups)?
Relationship with nature – Do people show mastery over it, harmony towards it or are they subjugated to it?
Relationship with time – Do people focus on the past, present, or future?
Human activity – What is our primary mode of activity – is our orientation one of being-in-becoming, doing, or reflecting?
Personal space – How do we think about space – is it public, private, or mixed?
The organizational culture varies from one corporation to another, according to the latent cognitive components such as assumptions, values, and beliefs and manifest elements such as artifacts and symbols (Schein 1985; Kotter and Heskett 1992).
Basic behavior reflects the minimal involvement.
Currently attainable behavior is considered moral but not laudable by society.
Practical behavior is difficult to attain but can be achieved through diligence.
Theoretical behavior is the highest potential for ethical behavior.
In a culture of defiance, members in the corporation resist or refuse authority, promoting minimal or no ethical procedures.
In a culture of neglect, leaders wish to follow ethical procedures but due to various shortcomings, they may not always be successful. Such factors include lack of understanding as well as communicating the code of ethics, failing to detect violation of such codes and lack of care in performing such tasks.
In a culture of compliance, the business follows the legal and ethical standards, even though members of the organization disagree with them. Thus, even though the organization complies with standards, the employees do not embrace the true spirit of such values.
Unlike previous examples, in a culture of character, the organization is aware of the ethical standards and embraces them to the full. There is a high level of morality, trust, fairness and integrity.
Hence, achieving the highest rank of Raiborn and Payne’s (1990) hierarchy or implementing Sauser and Sims’s (2007) culture of character, involves some soulsearching by the entire organization, which often leads to a transformative experience. Despite such ideologies appear theoretical in approach, these should serve as an eyeopener to ameliorate organizational behavior.
Values Related to Business Ethics and Sustainability
Among the norms and values which are at the core of a corporation’s culture of character, one finds integrity, objectivity, equity, and responsibility.
Jacobs (2004) makes reference to two types of definitions for integrity, given by the Oxford English Dictionary (1989) – one referring to the physical aspect linked to undivided wholeness and the other, which is mostly related to business ethics, focuses on morality, coined with words such as uprightness, honesty, and sincerity.
A theoretical “macrosocial” contract appealing to all rational contractors.
A real “microsocial” contract by members of numerous localized communities (Donaldson and Dunfee 1994:253).
The former, which alas is often hard to achieve, justifying why it is described as theoretical, refers to leaders who should promote openness, co-operation, worthwhileness, and safety within corporate integrity. The major obstacle is how these leaders should act as influencers and claimants at different levels – for employees and even organizations on a local and global scale – to acquire the necessary financial resources for the firm’s operations (Jensen and Meckling 1976; Zingales 2000 as cited in Eccles et al. 2014).
That is why DeGeorge (1993) stresses that a good rapport among employees should be established, through the provision of continuous training and profit sharing. He also adds that “multinational corporations can compete with integrity by exceeding their legal obligations.” This seems to contradict Bowie’s (1989 as cited in Hoffman 1991) view of a corporation’s legal responsibilities as DeGeorge (1993:189) captures a more humane approach, since all this involves “respecting human rights, fostering human development, and transcending the moral minimum.”
The real “microsocial,” would be involving employees, who are not only units within the corporation but also active members in the community. Donaldson and Dunfee (1999:viii) state that “the challenge for businesses is to be not only faithful to timeless principles but also reflective of their members’ more local values, including ones that are cultural and religious.” This indicates that through their cultural baggage and experiences, employees could serve as an indicator to what is needed in the community and how such needs can be addressed by the business, especially through corporate social responsibility.
Solomon (1992) notes that integrity should include a balance between institutional loyalty and moral autonomy. It is also associated with moral humility and altruism towards others.
A Self-Interest Threat happens when an individual takes advantage of financial interests including company transactions, incentive arrangement, or security of employment.
An Intimidation Threat happens when an individual’s objectivity is tampered by threats usually from influential people who determine the decision-making process or employability of the concerned individual when disagreement takes place.
A Self-Review Threat requires the re-evaluations of a previous judgment to ascertain that it complies with corporate’s standards.
The Familiarity Threat happens when close acquaintance or relationships with other individuals might hamper corporate decisions.
An Advocacy Threat happens when an individual endorses an idea that compromises objectivity (FEE 2003).
Fairness and Equity
Fairness, often linked with environmental justice, refers to when all people are treated in an just manner vis-à-vis the distribution of costs and benefits of any project, policy, or program. According to Liu (2018), justice lies at the core of sustainability and there cannot be one without the other, which in fact he refers to as “just sustainability.”
Intergenerational equity (or the principle of futurity)
Intergenerational equity (or contemporary social equity or social justice)
Geographical equity or transfrontier responsibility
Intergenerational and intragenerational equity refers to fairness provided to people living “now” and “later,” as Redclift (2005) asserts. The “now” can be easily relatable, which is not always the case for the “later.” Besides being unforeseen, the latter cannot be easily translated nor measured. In fact, Bell and Morse (2008) question whether the “later” is an immediate one or involves a span of 10, 100, or 1000 years.
Even though it should not be generalized, some researchers link the intergenerational and intragenerational aspect together since they believe that who cares for their “descendants would generally show concern for their contemporaries” (Ramlogan 2010).
This should be associated with the principle of good heritage, which states that the present society should leave fewer burdens for future generations “to transform its heritage from burden to gain, from limitation to freedom of acting, from hardly changeable destiny to the ability of achieving happiness” (Keiner 2003:388).
Dobson (1999) points out that the needs of future generations have to take priority over the current one. While his reasoning is valid, however, another approach would be Rasmus Karlsson’s (as cited in Pavlich 2010:39) contractual reasoning, where he reverses perspectives by stating: “What would we want the present generation to do if we were in the shoes of some future unborn generation?”
While showing empathy towards others is laudable, it is difficult to do so with nonexistent beings (Hubin 1976:71). This is because they cannot reciprocate to the actions of the current generation and therefore the latter cannot have any obligations towards future generations.
Geographical equity or transfrontier responsibility requires political action to solve not only local but even global environmental problems. This might often lead to environmental racism, through deliberate or unintentional action. It disregards or harms people of a particular race or geographical location, creating inequalities as documented in Boyce (2007), Bullard et al. (2007), Mohaiand Bryant (1992), Pastor (2007), Ringquist (2005), and Szasz and Meuser (1997) as cited in Ash et al. (2013).
This has been an inexorable issue throughout the years due to underdevelopment, dominion, and colonialism, resulting in the tragedy of commons. This is what Princen (1997:243–244) refers to “distancing” which is “the separation between primary resource extraction decisions and ultimate consumption decisions occurring along four dimensions – geography, culture, bargaining power, and agency.” Many developed countries made use of their colony’s resources to utilize them back in their homeland.
In order to protect one’s environmental rights, Haughton (1999) also mentions procedural equity which focuses on the need of participation and regulatory systems within legal jurisdiction, in order that people can be treated fairly.
Equal access of information is required so that the community is informed, especially in deprived areas, where illiteracy is prevalent. Often, some corporations might take advantage of communities that lack social capital and political influence that offer little resistance and no democratic framework (Bullard 1990; Hamilton 1995; Pastor, 2003; Saha and Mohai 2005 as cited in Ash et al. 2013) to conduct illicit actions.
Equal treatment should be provided where political boundaries are concerned. In fact, Haughton and Hunter (1994) suggest that when transboundary pollution happens, affected countries should have the same rights to defend themselves against polluters in the same way the host country would. Corporations might affect market prices, causing lower property value where environmental hazards occur. This often leads to migration by deprived communities (Banzhaf and Walsh 2006; Been 1994).
Haughton (1999) also takes into consideration other species, such as plants and animals a par to humans, through inter-species equity, to instill more consciousness towards environmental stewardship in upkeeping ecosystems’ vitality and maintaining biodiversity.
“Social responsibility is the obligation of decision makers to take actions which protect and improve the welfare of society along with their own interests” (Davis 1975 as cited in Carroll 2016). However, it is not only the responsibility of decision makers, but also of every individual within the corporation. It is for this reason that Garrido (2013) distinguishes between individual responsibility (the personal attitude) and objective responsibility (the set of values that define a person or organization).
Carroll’s (2016) definition includes four components: economic, legal, ethical, and philanthropic responsibilities as a foundation to frame what corporations should undertake. These four components were later incorporated in a model known as the CSR pyramid.
This responsibility envisages corporations to be profitable and encourage investments by shareholders to continue operation by employees, as required by society.
Comply according to the government’s expectations
Comply with various local, national and international regulations
Fulfill legal obligations to all stakeholders
Provide goods and services that meet legal requirements
Engage employees who act as law-abiding corporate citizens
Legal responsibilities mostly affect leaders, but the threat of litigation against corporations arises most often from employees and consumers when treated unfairly.
Being good corporate citizens and performing consistently with societal norms and values
Recognizing new norms being adopted by society
Recognizing that integrity and ethical behavior go beyond compliance with laws
Preventing compromising ethical norms to achieve profit
Corporate philanthropy means being a good corporate citizen by showing altruism towards others as desired by society, usually through voluntary opportunities that include physical and human resources. Employees’ morale and level of engagement reflect a corporation’s level of philanthropic responsibility (Carroll 1991 as cited in Carroll 2016).
Even though the model is theoretical in essence, it should not be seen as a snapshot of responsibilities, but more of dynamic long-term obligations towards sustainability, taking into account future generation of stakeholders.
Weaving Business Ethics and Sustainability: A Transformative Way Forward
Implementing Sauser and Sims’ (2007) culture of character in a corporation is not plain sailing. It requires the right frame of mind and organizational skills employed by leaders through, “decision-making processes, rewards, norms, heroes, stories, rituals, and other artifacts to create a strong culture” (Graham 2015). Ardichvili et al. (2009) rightly state that “ethical culture starts at the top and is conveyed by example…. the CEO and senior management live their lives with great personal integrity” and they “do what they say they’re going to do.”
Even though leaders should act as role models, they should also been kept adjourned with the latest trends in order to promote good governance. Ethical decision-making is influenced by internal factors such as a leader’s ethical sensitivity and moral character. Honing moral reasoning requires maturity, experience, and education, which develop in a series of sequential stages as delineated in Kohlberg’s model of moral development (1969). However, there are also external factors which exert their influence on decision-making, such as culture and the environment.
It is for this reason that Khurana and Nohria (2008) recommend professionalizing managers. In doing so, leaders require continuous professional development, which consists of a type of education, as Dewey (1910) affirms, that combines knowledge, skills, and “activity-related” knowledge, dealing with what Srnka (2004) proposes as the “affective-cognitive-behavior spectrum of ethical dimension.”
Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) fulfills this, as it should re-orient not only leaders but even employees, to bridge the gap between knowledge and attitudes which are subject to “macroenvironmental pressures, personal relationships, individual values, and motivations” (Ajzen and Fishbein 1980).
The head refers to the cognitive domain where the person should have acquired knowledge to gain experience by doing, linking it to craftsmanship. Schön (1983), who adds on Khurana and Nohria’s (2008) notion of professionalism, argues that one’s expertise, indirectly referring to knowledge, is the sum of: basic science, applied science, and competences. This conforms with Rousseau (2006), Nielsen (2010), and Fichter (2016) who state that decision-making should happen through reflection.
Introspection and critical reflection leads to metacognition, which is reflecting on one’s own thinking. It is based on connections, past experiences, and knowledge as stated by Dewey (1910); (1944), Kolb (1984), and Roberts (2002 as cited in Singleton 2015) which by and large, should add meaning to business experience, initiating this transformative experience. Hence, craftsmanship should promote ethical behavior and sustainability, according to one’s own judgment and surrounding environment, contributing to society at large (Sennett 2008).
Of utmost importance in view of ethics and sustainability is that according to Khurana and Nohria (2008) a professional takes a decision not only on knowledge but also in relation to the environment that surrounds the corporation. In fact, Mayer and Frantz (2004) confirm that love of place leads to fostering sustainable behaviors.
The heart refers to the affective domain, where values and feelings translate in responsible behavior. Affectation determines what one values or cares about, especially in decision-making.
The hand refers to the psychomotor domain, where the person hones practical skills, leading to deep engagement.
Dewey views these three aspects as “dynamic interplay,” which contrasts Simon’s idea, that the three should be separated as head (cognition), heart (emotion) and hands (routines) (Cohen 2007a:777 as cited in de Graff 2018). While Simon refers to “routines” which are more standardized activities, Dewey makes use of the word “habits.” Simon’s terminology seems to conform with the behavior theory of the firm which states that in any corporation, individuals take decisions based on routine or their daily habits, confirming that the majority of hurdles in a business are attitudinal (Dewhurst and Thomas 2003). Even though we might try to promote ethical values, “unconscious motives” influence us to reach incomplete or contradictory facts, political dominion and insufficient resources to accomplish tasks.
Through deep engagement, reflection, and relational understandings, a corporation might promote ethical and sustainable behavior. It should be able to create an atmosphere of collegiality that promotes an experience that can change one’s relationship with the world – as Dewey (1934) envisions – “a new way of seeing, a new way of being in the world that is transformative.”
Business ethics has orthodoxy (correct policy) and orthopraxis (correct practice) at its core, which could be achieved through the mind, heart, and hand triad, touted as the best means to promote a transformative business ethic, diverging from an epistemological change in worldviews to an ontological process spearheading change of being in the world (Lange 2004).
In essence, despite being heavily criticized, all this lies within the pragmatic framework, which should inherently consider the corporations’ sustainability in terms of products and services provided, business conduct and quality standards.
This pragmatic approach would shift gears from taking decisions based on routines or habits. It promotes reflective decision-making and multiperspective pluralism in a democratic climate, where exchange of experiences and knowledge between leaders and employees can give more insight not only on the needs of the community but also of the surrounding environment so that “when ethical issues arise, [the] CEO …gathers facts and takes action” (Ardichvili et al. 2009).
Similarly claimed by Visser (2017), the “Pragmatist Critical Perspective” challenges traditional business ideologies mentioned earlier, such as profit maximization, efficiency, and productivity to consider the needs of the environment and different stakeholders.
Practicality underpins the pragmatic philosophy, which excludes the utilitarian possibility that each moral choice is based upon calculation. Moral decision-making is of utter importance for any corporation especially in the light of sustainability as “one also chooses what specific experience he/she acquires, what kind of person one wants to become, what kind of self is in the making, and what kind of world is in the making” (Zhu and Jesiek 2017).
Since sustainability deals with the notion of futurity, there is no guarantee that decisions will actually materialize, often disheartening corporations. This is because a decision taken in one situation might change in the future, requiring a different course of action, as stated by Emison (2004):
the circumstance must inform the choice of ethical theories depending on which make the most sense and to what extent these theories still hold.
This transformative approach, through its pragmatic outlook, might offer solutions to deal with situations at hand, even in the future – by shifting gears – transforming attitudes and behavior to face a prosperous future.
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