Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Environmental Sustainability’

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.

Does BP = Beyond the Pale?

The Center for Public Integrity reported that two refineries owned by BP accounted for “97 percent of all flagrant violations found in the refining industry by government safety inspectors over the past three years.” The Occupational Safety and Health Administration classified most of BP’s citations as “egregious willful” reflecting rule violations designed to prevent catastrophic refinery events.

Consider the 582-page application that BP submitted for its Deepwater Horizon well that never once discusses how to stop a blowout. Granted, the Minerals Management Service does not require a plan. Instead, amid lax regulation and/or a sloppy corporate cut and paste job, BP pledged that cold water mammals including sea otters, walruses, and sea lions would be protected in the Mexican Gulf. They also provided a Japanese home-shopping network Web address for its primary spill response provider. Not to be outdone, BP attempted to contain the public’s outrage by paying big bucks to fill top search items like “oil spill” with their own video material.

As a practical outlet for the philosophy of morality, ethics gives structure and boundaries. BP’s actions could be considered beyond the pale (unacceptable) for its loss of human life, underestimating the environmental impact, or social gaffes from its CEO. Some counter these unfortunate occurrences with the corporate behemoth as a victim of bad moral luck, regulators unable to keep up with complex rig technology, or managers pressured by the continued drive to hold down costs and make money for shareholders. Do these nuanced qualifications deserve further consideration before making final judgment or does BP’s systematic stench of unethical behavior run outside agreed standards of decency?

Avatar CSR

Critics who tirelessly pan Avatar’s (2010) message as a recycled, retrospective Dance with Wolves-like’ (1990) analysis of the white man’s treatment of indigenous peoples miss the point. James Cameron is not simply creating a descriptive message of corporate social responsibility (CSR) but prescribes a call toward action to stop repeating the tactics from our collective past. He does not seek to hide the brutal treatment of the Na’vi at the hands of a commercially backed paramilitary brigade devoted ad nauseum to the profit motive. Parker Selfridge, the passive-aggressive head administrator of the Resources Development Administration (RDA) reveals Pandora’s bottom line:

This is why we’re here−unobtainium−because this little gray rock sells for twenty million a kilo. This pays for the whole party.

Jake Sully, the self-reflective ex-marine, resigns himself to his role among the Na’vi: a warrior dreaming he could bring peace. Sooner or later though, he has to “wake up.” Jake openly embraces the connection that the Na’vi have with their Pandora home and the contradictions between his own values and actions.

Giant transnational corporations (see Shell Petroleum and the Ogoni) who use the very same tactics portrayed in Avatar to placate their Boards and shareholders continue to threaten and harass indigenous peoples. Usually there is some nuanced benefit derived from the corporation and descriptive ‘diplomatic’ solutions do not wind up solely as public relations window dressing. However, Cameron’s not-so hidden, ought-not prescriptive message in Avatar is straightforward: the treatment of indigenous peoples for sake of the profit motive is unethical and needs to stop.