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Built to Last

Last weekend, I attended a Sustainability, Ethics, and Entrepreneurship Conference and toured one of the world’s most energy-efficient corporate headquarters (the National Renewal Energy Lab in Golden, CO features net zero carbon emissions and energy consumption). It draws from past architecture (e.g. warm, thick Cathedral walls) to construct the modern building.

I had often assumed that sustainability was financially prohibitive–at least in the short run–but learned that high costs of “going green” primarily come from reactively correcting “brown habits” or modifying traditional construction. When sustainability is the plan from the get-go, expenditures can fall to financially and environmentally desirable levels. This built-in structure reinforces ethical behavior and stewardship of our natural resources.

The relationship between sustainability and business ethics is not limited to office space. Former executive Greg Smith famously quit Goldman Sachs last month from the lack of moral fiber in the corporate ethos. Smith’s diatribe reinforces the Occupy Wall Street protesters’ sentiments against moral unsustainability. During reactive and costly moves to regulate misconduct, greed is the familiar explanatory scapegoat.

The practical question for moral architects consists of how to build ethics into business foundations and incentivize moral sustainability. Business ethicist Jim O’Toole reminded conferees of ethikos (a Greek term for moral character or structure) as a guard against the hazard of group think; to reduce the moral cost, we need ethics integrated into corporate structure from the get-go.

While it is virtuous for corporate employees to be team players, it is also easy to justify questionable behaviors from within the group. While unethical behavior may be obvious to individuals on the outside, the pressure that otherwise mature adults face in the workplace need mitigation. Sustainability and ethics must be built within our corporate structure and foundation.

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