Most Ethics classes would have you believe that an ethical dilemma is a choice between two seemingly right things – like stealing bread to feed your family and obeying the law.
In fact, most ethical business dilemmas have a clear right or wrong: should we manufacture using child labor? Should we use toxic dyes that pollute 3rd world rivers? Yet, business leaders make the wrong choice every day in order to keep prices low and increase shareholder returns. When these people go home, they’ll encourage their children to say please and thank you and follow the golden rule– they wouldn’t think to model their bad ethical choices at home, but in the office it becomes “just business.” When a business leader has different set of ethical standards at home than he does in the office, there is obviously something rotten in the state of Denmark. Yet that’s the current paradigm for the sustainable business movement.
Over coffee yesterday, CSR Expert Andrew Newton expressed a frustration with being encouraged to “make the business case for sustainability.” If a company’s main foray into CSR is compliance, he argued, and they have no intention of making sustainable improvements to their operations unless they are convinced by the business case, should we even bother? He posited that our efforts as the proponents of sustainability are better spent on the next wave of business leaders – better focused on supporting businesses that incorporate doing the right thing into all their operations from the ground up.
Last month, Harvard MBAs made headlines with their ethics pledge to create value responsibly and ethically a la the Hippocratic oath. Traditionalists were surprised to hear that young business leaders were interested in more than their bankrolls. Yet I was hardly shocked at all. In the wake of Bernie Madoff and toxic assets, when supposed experts have blatantly failed the public, the need for change is obvious. In its article about the pledge, the New York Times speaks of an activist push amongst students of a caliber that hasn’t been seen since the 60s – a permanent push for change from a system that forces business leaders to be on person in the office and another at home. The same desire for change is at the root of development of sustainable MBAs like those offered by Presidio, Bainbridge, and Dominican. Some might call it a revolution.
It’s clear that a new wave is afoot, however I struggle with the idea that bastions of old business practices should be cast aside. Change happens slowly and at many levels. Much as I want to focus my efforts on the next wave, I’m writing this post in Microsoft Word, on a plane likely built by Boeing, and, despite the chagrin of my sustainably minded peers, I occasionally enjoy a frosty Coke. I would be a hypocrite if I ignored my opportunity to influence those companies whose products and services I consume, alongside my support for the next wave.
The new wave of innovation is more invigorating, encouraging, and forward thinking than a focus on the old dinosaurs might be. But I don’t know if I’m ready for a total revolution. Do you think we need one?