Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

2012 Global 100 Greenwash

Corporate Knights has announced its 2012 list of the “Global 100,” its annual ranking of what are ostensibly the world’s most sustainable companies. And once again the list is deeply misleading.

The list is topped by pharmaco Novo Nordisk, Brazil’s Natura Cosmeticos, Norwegian energy company Statoil, the Danish biotech company Novozymes, and a Dutch company called ASML Holding, a manufacturer of photolithography machines used in the semiconductor industry. Some will surely express surprise at the list — after all, none of these companies is in an industry known for being squeaky-clean. But that’s not the real problem.

The real problem lies in Corporate Knights’ methodology. Like all similar rankings, this one has to choose some criteria. And the devil is in the details.

Here are their criteria used to determine the Global 100 — a sustainability ranking — for 2012:

#1. Energy productivity
#2. Greenhouse gas (GHG) productivity
#3. Water productivity
#4. Waste productivity
#5. Innovation Capacity
#6. % Taxes Paid
#7. CEO to Average Employee Pay
#8. Safety Productivity
#9. Employee Turnover
#10. Leadership Diversity
#11. Clean Capitalism Paylink

The problem is that more than half of these criteria — #5 through #10 — have nothing to do with sustainability. I do realize that the exact definition of “sustainability” is up for grabs at this point, and many people interpret it quite broadly. And yes, if you use your imagination and squint your eyes a bit, I guess you can conjure up a connection between “Leadership Diversity” and sustainability. But it’s a stretch. I mean, sustainability has something — something — to do with environmental issues, right?

One sustainability consultant who shall go unnamed recently told me that “sustainability doesn’t mean ‘sustainability’ any more — it just means all the good stuff that business does.” The problem is, that’s not what the term conjures in the mind of the public, the consumers of the headlines a list like this provokes. When they hear “sustainable” they think “green.” So a sustainability ranking that is only partly based on environmental performance fails in its basic functions, namely to reward companies for their green behaviour, and to educate consumers about which companies are performing well on issues that are important to them.

Environmental Profit-and-Loss

It’s attractive, but very dangerous, to try to calculate a ‘bottom line’ for a firm’s social or environmental performance. Attractive, because key stakeholders are increasingly interested in knowing those kinds of details. But the main danger should be obvious: there’s just no way to add up the disparate factors that make up a firm’s social or environmental performance. How do you add together litres-of-water-used plus hectares-of-habitat-destroyed? On the social performance side, how do you sum up number-of-women-in-senior-management plus fair-trade-contracts signed?

The answer of course is that you cannot. You can’t add up things that are represented in different units of measure. That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t track and report these various numbers; but it casts a dim light on the prospects of arriving at a global assessment of a firm’s social or economic performance.

Unless, of course, you simply put a dollar figure on everything, in which case the math becomes quite easy.

That’s what shoemaker Puma has done, with its new Environmental Profit & Loss Account (E P&L). They’ve attached a dollar value to their greenhouse gas Emissions and their water consumption, and compared that to the dollar value of the shoes they produce. And, interestingly, they’re publicizing the fact that, environmentally, they’re in the red. They extract more from the environment than they provide to consumers. Environmentally, they’re operating at a loss.

Now, in standard terms, any firm that uses more (in dollars) than it puts out (in dollars) is going to go out of business pretty quickly. But as Puma’s Jochen Zeitz points out, that’s not the case for many environmental inputs because so many environmental inputs are unpriced — that is, they cost a company nothing. Pollution, for example, when unregulated, costs a company nothing, and when under-regulated costs the company less than the cost such pollution imposes on others. So what Puma has done is put a dollar value on these things so that they can figure out what their environmental bottom line would be, if they actually had to pay for all they consume and all they emit.

There are two key problems with such attempts to calculate an environmental bottom line this way. One is practical: there just aren’t uncontroversial ways to put a dollar figure on every unpriced environmental input. Certainly there are people who can provide methods for doing so; but that doesn’t mean there’s a clear right way to do it.

The other problem is, well, philosophical. It’s not at all clear that everything we want to say about environmental ethics can be summed up in terms of economic impact. What’s the dollar value of the loss of a species? Is the value of beautiful scenery really captured by summing up how much each of us would be willing to pay to preserve it?

Still, Puma deserves credit for this rather striking bit of transparency. Even though the “E P&L” is a pretty incomplete picture, it nonetheless does tell us something about the company’s overall environmental impact, and its commitment to doing better.

(Thanks to Andrew Crane for pointing me to the Puma story.)

Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?

A few days ago, I blogged about the notion of “ethical oil”. That’s the label one advocacy group is applying to oil from Canada’s oilsands, to distinguish it from oil from Saudi Arabia, a country with a less-than-admirable human rights record. That, of course, is a gross oversimplification.

But it’s still an interesting ethical issue. I said,

In principle, we could look at this as a matter of “choose your poison.” Do you want the oil that’s associated with human rights violations, or the oil that’s associated with environmental destruction?

It’s important to point out that there are two reasons this is a false dilemma. One is that consumers don’t actually get to choose: oil isn’t labeled by country of origin. The other reason is that neither of the nations named above is perfect, from a social and human rights point of view; nor is either country perfect from the point of view of environmental protection.

But it’s a philosophical thought-experiment worth conducting. So, let’s imagine: you’re driving your car, and your tank is near empty. You’re at an intersection with two gas stations. One is the Saudi brand and the other is the oilsands brand. Which one would you choose?

(Again, I do realize this is a gross oversimplification. It’s not a real choice. It’s a thought-experiment to get you to think about the relative value of the environment and human rights. Let’s all be thankful it’s not a choice we actually have to make.)

Which Oil is the More Ethical Oil?

It’s a clever marketing strategy. But is there really such a thing as ethical oil?

In today’s National Post, the Fraser Institute‘s Mark Milke argues that there is, and that “the ethical oil tag is useful shorthand for why Canada’s oil is preferable to that extracted elsewhere.” But “preferable” is a pretty grand, global conclusion. It implies that, all told, Canada’s oil is better, ethically. And that may well be, but it’s certainly not obvious. Don’t get me wrong — I’m a patriotic Canadian, proud of my country and its accomplishments. But I’m also a critical thinker, and a critical thinker can’t accept unreflectively a conclusion that happens to coincide with his own biases. Indeed, the fact that Milke’s conclusion conforms so neatly to my own biases is a strong reason for me to look at his argument more closely.

His argument is basically that Canada’s oil is ethically preferable to the oil produced in other places, considering especially places with serious histories of violating human rights.

OK, so let’s try it out. Let’s look at a rough sketch of the perceived negative ethical implications of oil from the top 10 countries listed by oil production….

Russia — widespread political & economic corruption;
Saudi Arabia — oppressive regime; human rights abuses;
United States — capital punishment; crazy war on drugs; irresponsible financial institutions;
Iran — human rights violations; insane political leaders;
China — human rights violations;
Canada — environmental degradation; poor treatment of indigenous peoples;
Mexico — widespread corruption; ongoing drug war;
United Arab Emirates — undemocratic;
Brazil — crushing poverty; immense social inequality;
Kuwait — undemocratic; human trafficking and abuse of migrant workers.

Feel free to add your own potential points of criticism to the list. And, of course, you can add significant environmental concerns to the worries for all oil-producing nations. That goes with the turf.

Now we absolutely must not make the mistake of treating this like a checklist, or treating all of the ethical “bads” listed above as equally bad. They’re not. And the other problem with this list is that it presumes that the only alternatives are various countries’ oil. Presumably much of the criticism of tar-sand oil isn’t that it’s so environmentally-evil that it’s ethically worse than, say, Saudi oil. Rather, the criticism has to be that tar-sand oil is worse than renewable energy sources that we ought to be developing, like solar and wind and geothermal.

So while I think the “ethical oil” label is rather, well, crude, I think the people promoting that label are at least doing us the unintentional service of reminding us that it’s far from clear what counts as an ethical source of energy. (If you use slave labour to build a wind turbine, is that an ethical source of energy?) As my friend Andrew Crane points out there are many dimensions along which to evaluate the ethics of any product — including not just the intrinsic properties of the product but also things like the process of production and nation of origin. That certainly applies to oil. I just wish I could believe that the people pushing the “ethical oil” label for my country’s oil were doing it to advance the debate, rather than to score points in it.

Update: Take a hew poll on this topic, here: Oil Poll: Human Rights or Environment?

Bragging About Not Recycling

No recycling waterRecycling is cool, right? It’s hip to be green, right? Well, apparently that’s not always the case.

I spotted this sign at a carwash here in Toronto yesterday. This carwash (the labour-intensive handwash kind) is proud of the fact that its water is always fresh, never recycled. In 2011, it’s a striking way of bragging.

Two points worth making:

First, any business that brags about using a resource in the least frugal way possible is perhaps, just perhaps, paying too little for it. Now, from what I understand, water usage by businesses in Toronto is metered, though I don’t know just how expensive the water is for businesses. But it’s at least worth contemplating that, for a sometimes-scarce resource (and water counts as one of those, even in Canada) a business can only brag about maximal usage if it’s not paying very much for it in the first place. If we want to encourage people (and businesses) to use less water, the first step is to make sure usage is metered, and the second step is to make sure that prices are sufficient to discourage waste. Water is a public utility, and pricing is often subsidized in ways that encourages waste. Notice there are precisely zero airlines bragging about how much fuel they use.

The second thing worth noting is the basic value conflict here. Why is it that this company is bragging about using only fresh water? Presumably it’s because they or their customers associate fresh water with a better product, i.e., a better wash. Now, that belief might be mistaken. In fact, I strongly suspect it is mistaken. I suspect that recycling and filtering can easily get water clean enough to get your car 100% sparkly clean. But the perception that recycled water is inferior is out there, and it may be difficult to change. In the meantime, this remains an example of what many will experience as a difficult values-based choice: do you want the best product, or the greenest one? Sometimes, the greenest choice is also the best product, and when that’s true it’s either a happy coincidence or the result of really smart product development. But we must not allow clever marketing to convince us that that will automatically be the case, that green = ethical = happy = socially progressive. Life is full of choices, and that truth is one that we cannot afford to water down.

Are Girl Scout Cookies Evil?

Girl Guide CookiesIs nothing sacred? What could be more pure and innocent and hard-to-object-to than delicious bite-sized cookies sold, door-to-door, by happy-faced young girls trying to raise money to support a wonderful not-for-profit organization?

Well, apparently nothing is safe from criticism. Girl Guide cookies, as it turns out, are under attack for being made with palm oil, a tropical oil the production of which has been blamed for deforestation and for endangering the habitat of orangutans. Girl Scout cookies, in their current form, are apparently evil.


Here’s the story as reported by Tara Kelly, blogging for Time: Do Girl Scout Cookies Harm the Environment? Renegade Scouts Fight Against Palm Oil Ingredient

…now two renegade girl scouts are lobbying the Girl Scouts of America to remove the ingredient from the cookies.
Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, who are high school sophomores, stopped selling Girl Scout cookies in 2007 after they began working on a public service project to bring attention to the plight of endangered orangutans in Borneo. To ramp up their efforts, Rhiannon Tomtishen and Madison Vorva, natives of Ann Arbor, Michigan, have teamed up with Rainforest Action Network (RAN) to make the change a reality….

OK, OK. So I’ve long realized that Girl Scout Cookies (a.k.a. “Girl Guide Cookies,” here in Canada) are evil, but only in roughly the same way that any addict realizes that the object of his desire is evil. Every year I buy quite a few boxes of GG Cookies (the mint wafer kind, thank you very much) and hoard them, hiding them from family and friends, to enjoy them one-by-delicious-one.

A few random thoughts about the ethical issues here:

1) This is a lovely example of why not-for-profit organizations fall squarely within the bailiwick of business ethics, even if they’re not “businesses” as that term is traditionally conceived. (According to Time, by the way, the Girl Scouts annually sell nearly three quarters of a billion dollars worth of their delicious baked goods.) I suspect that Kathy Cloninger, CEO of Girl Scouts USA, is finding out that even a not-for-profit cannot hide its head in the sand when faced with criticism of its supply chain.

2) Sometimes (but only sometimes) evil comes from trying to do good. Time notes the reason for the existence of palm oil in the cookies:

In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration began requiring unhealthy trans-fats to be listed on the Nutrition Facts labels on food products. Two official Girl Scouts bakers worked to make its cookies healthier in light of the changes, said Tomkins. “In order to rid cookies of trans-fats, you had to find another alternative.” That alternative is palm oil.

So, the cookies are less-environmentally-friendly because of efforts to make them better for your arteries. Is there a win-win alternative out there? Maybe, but that cannot be assumed. It may well be that some sort of tradeoff is going to be required. So, ask yourself: which do you care about more…your arteries or the orangutans? (“Pssst! You’ve got cookie crumbs on your tie!”)

3) The main reason that Girl Scouts USA makes such a good target for criticism (in addition to its prominence) is of course precisely the organization’s clean-cut, do-gooding image. In other words, the organization is vulnerable to criticisms that would simply be shrugged off by whatever anonymous company makes the cookies sold in the bulk-food aisle of the grocery store. The Girl Scouts have an image to protect, and, other things being equal, this means they are more likely to be responsive to pressure. But then, that image has been earned, and critics may well find that the public would rather continue to support a favourite charitable organization than learn about a new set of ethical issues focused on the effects such support could have in far-away lands. That doesn’t mean that the anti-cookie campaign can’t get traction. It just means that when the battle is good cause versus good cause, the outcome is hard to predict, and it’s not clear whether there can even be winners.

Hat tip to NW, for pointing me to this excellent story.

Sustainability is Unsustainable

I was tempted to call this blog entry “Sustainability is Stupid,” but I changed my mind because that’s needlessly inflammatory. And really, the problem isn’t that the concept itself is stupid, though certainly I’ve seen some stupid uses of the term. But the real problem is that it’s too broad for some purposes, too narrow for others, and just can’t bear the weight that many people want to put on it. The current focus on sustainability as summing up everything we want to know about doing the right thing in business is, for lack of a better word, unsustainable.

Anyway, I am tired of sustainability. And not just because, as Ad Age recently declared, it’s one of the most jargon-y words of the year. Which it is. But the problems go beyond that.

Here are just a few of the problems with sustainability:

1) Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, not everything unsustainable is bad. Oil is unsustainable, technically speaking. It will eventually get scarce, and eventually run out, for all intents and purposes. But it’s also a pretty nifty product. It works. It’s cheap. And it’s not going away soon. So producing it isn’t evil, and using it isn’t evil, even if (yes, yes) it would be better if we used less. Don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of oil. It would be great if cars could run on something more plentiful and less polluting, like sunshine or water or wind. But in the meantime, oil is an absolutely essential commodity. Unsustainable, but quite useful.

2) There are ways for things to be bad other than being unsustainable. Cigarettes are a stupid, bad product. They’re addictive. They kill people. But are they sustainable? You bet. The tobacco industry has been going strong for a few hundred years now. If that’s not sustainability, I don’t know what is. To say that the tobacco industry isn’t sustainable is like saying the dinosaur way of life wasn’t sustainable because dinosaurs only ruled the earth for, like, a mere 150 million years. So, it’s a highly sustainable industry, but a bad one.

3) There’s no such thing as “sustainable” fish or “sustainable” forests or “sustainable” widgets, if by “sustainable” you mean as opposed to the other, “totally unsustainable” kind of fish or forests or widgets. It’s not a binary concept, but it gets sold as one. A fishery (or a forest or whatever) is either more or less sustainable. So to label something “sustainable” is almost always greenwash. Feels nice, but meaningless.

4) We’re still wayyyy unclear on what the word “sustainable” means. And I’m not talking about fine academic distinctions, here. I’m talking big picture. As in, what is the topic of discussion? For some people, for example, “sustainability” is clearly an environmental concept. As in, can we sustain producing X at the current rate without running out of X or out of the raw materials we need to make X? Or can we continue producing Y like this, given the obvious and unacceptable environmental damage it does? For others, though — well, for others, “sustainability” is about something much broader: something economic, environmental, and social. This fundamental distinction reduces dramatically the chances of having a meaningful conversation about this topic.

5) Many broad uses of the term “sustainable” are based on highly questionable empirical hypotheses. For example, some people seem to think that “sustainable” isn’t just an environmental notion because, after all, how can your business be sustainable if you don’t treat your workers well? And how can you sustain your place in the market if you don’t produce a high-quality product? Etc., etc. But of course, there are lots of examples of companies treating employees and customers and communities badly, and doing so quite successfully, over time-scales that make any claim that such practices are “unsustainable” manifestly silly. (See #2 above re the tobacco industry for an example.)

6) We have very, very little idea what is actually sustainable, environmentally or otherwise. Sure, there are clear cases. But for plenty of cases, the correct response to a claim of sustainability is simply “How do you know?” We know a fair bit, I think, about what kinds of practices tend to be more, rather than less, environmentally sustainable. But given the complexities of ecosystems, and the complexities of production processes and business supply chains, tracing all the implications of a particular product or process in order to declare it “sustainable” is very, very challenging. I conjecture that there are far, far more claims of “sustainability” than there are instances where the speaker knows what he or she is talking about.

7) Sometimes, it’s right to do the unsustainable thing. For example, would you kill the last breeding pair of an endangered species (say, bluefin tuna, before long) to feed a starving village, if that was your only way of doing so? I would. Sure, there’s room for disagreement, but I think I could provide a pretty good argument that in such a case, the exigencies of the immediate situation would be more weighty, morally, than the long-term consequences. Now, hopefully such terrible choices are few. But the point is simply to illustrate that sustainability is not some sort of over-arching value, some kind of trump card that always wins the hand.

8 ) The biggest, baddest problem with sustainability is that, like “CSR” and “accountability” and other hip bits of jargon, it’s a little wee box that people are trying to stuff full of every feel-good idea they ever hoped to apply to the world of business. So let’s get this straight: there are lots and lots of ways in which business can act rightly, or wrongly. And not all of them can be expressed in terms of the single notion of “sustainability.”

Now, look. Of course I don’t have anything against sustainability per se. I like the idea of running fisheries in a way that is more, rather than less, sustainable. I like the idea of sustainable agriculture (i.e., agriculture that does less, rather than more, long-term damage to the environment and uses up fewer, rather than more, natural resources). But let’s not pretend that sustainability is the only thing that matters, or that it’s the only word we need in our vocabulary when we want to talk about doing the right thing in business.

Greenpeace, Tar Sands and “Fighting Fire With Fire”

Do higher standards apply to advertising by industry than apply to advertising by nonprofits? Is it fair to fight fire with fire? Do two wrongs make a right?

See this item, by Kevin Libin, writing for National Post: Yogourt fuels oil-sands war.

Here’s what is apparently intolerable to certain environmental groups opposed to Alberta’s oil sands industry: an advertisement that compares the consistency of tailings ponds to yogourt.

Here’s what is evidently acceptable to certain environmental groups opposed to Alberta’s oil sands industry: an advertisement warning that a young biologist working for Devon Energy named Megan Blampin will “probably die from cancer” from her work, and that her family will be paid hush money to keep silent about it….

It’s worth reading the rest of the story to get the details. Basically, the question is about the standards that apply to advertising by nonprofit or activist groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. But it’s also more specifically about whether it’s OK for such groups to get personal by including in their ads individual employees of the companies they are targeting.

A few quick points:

  • Many people think companies deserve few or no protections against attacks. Some people, for example, think companies should not even be able to sue for slander or libel. Likewise, corporations (and other organizations) do not enjoy the same regulatory protections and ethical standards that protect individual humans when they are the subjects of university-based research. Corporations may have, of necessity, certain legal rights, but not the same list (and not as extensive a list) as the list of rights enjoyed by human persons. So people are bound to react differently when activist groups attack (or at least name) individual human persons, as opposed to “merely” attacking corporations.
  • Complicating matters is the fact that the original ads (by Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, or CAPP) themselves featured those same individual employees. So the employees had presumably already volunteered to be put in the spotlight. But of course, they volunteered to be put in the spotlight in a particular way.
  • For many people, the goals of the organizations in question will matter. So the fact that Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are trying literally to save the world (rather than aiming at something more base, like filthy lucre) might be taken as earning them a little slack. In other words, some will say that the ends justify the means. On the other hand, the particular near-term goals of those organizations are not shared by everyone. And not everyone thinks that alternative goals (like making a profit, or like keeping Canadians from freezing to death in winter) are all that bad.
  • Others might say that, being organizations explicitly committed to doing good, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club ought to be entirely squeaky-clean. If they can’t be expected to keep their noses clean, who can? On the other hand, some might find that just a bit precious. Getting the job done is what matters, and it’s not clear that an organization with noble goals wins many extra points for conducting itself in a saintly manner along the way.

(I’ve blogged about the tar sands and accusations of greenwashing, here: Greenwashing the Tar Sands.)

Thanks to LW for sending me this story.

Wikileaks & Mastercard: Should Companies Do Government’s Bidding?

The controversy over Wikileaks has raised the question of whether companies should do government’s bidding. One popular suspicion is that Mastercard, Visa, and PayPal stopped acting as conduits for donations to Wikileaks not on principled grounds, but rather due to government pressure. If that’s true, is it ethically acceptable for business to act that way, as a tool of government? I’m not talking about government contractors, including military contractors like Blackwater, though I suppose the comparison is not entirely ridiculous. I’m thinking broadly of companies (ones not in the employ of government) helping to enact public policy or to implement the will of government more generally.

From a moral point of view, the question has to hinge in part on the moral quality of the particular thing business is being asked to do, and that may in turn hinge in part on the moral character of the particular government involved. Think, for example, of the controversy over Google participating in censorship in China. Many people thought it was wrong for Google to implement government policy in that case because they believe the Chinese government’s censoring of its citizens’ internet access to be morally problematic.

It’s worth pointing out that there are times and places where participating in implementing government objectives has been seen as unobjectionable, even patriotic. During both World Wars, companies were expected to participate in the ‘war effort’ by ramping up production, by shifting production to products needed for the war, and by conserving key raw materials. And that sort of active, corporate civic responsibility isn’t limited to times of war. Note that the US Department of Homeland Security expanded its “If You See Something, Say Something” to…

…hundreds of Walmart stores across the country – launching a new partnership between DHS and Walmart to help the American public play an active role in ensuring the safety and security of our nation.

I think it’s also instructive here to consider the relationship between “the state” (roughly, the government) and society. Many people are happy to think of corporations as instruments of society — that’s what motivates much of the CSR movement. We think it right for businesses to be environmentally responsible because we, as a society, value the environment. We want to conserve our resources, and we expect business to do its part. But the democratic state, like it or not, is a legitimate instrument of society. Now, government (including democratic government) is notoriously imperfect. As Churchill said, democracy is the worst system in the world, except for all the rest. But it’s hard to see how you can approve of (or insist upon) corporate implementation of social objectives and at the same time object entirely to corporate implementation of government objectives when those objectives are the reasonable objectives of a relatively-legitimate government.

In the end, it seems to me that if the behaviour in question is not intrinsically unethical (as Microsoft and Yahoo helping China’s government spy on dissidents arguably was) and if the behaviour doesn’t violate the firm’s fiduciary obligations to its shareholders, then it is at least permissible (though not necessarily obligatory) for a business to help implement public policy.

MBA Ethics Education: Designing the Designers

As a Visiting Scholar at the Rotman School of Management (more specifically at the Clarkson Centre for Business Ethics and Board Effectiveness), I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we educate tomorrow’s business leaders. This is the first of a series of blog entries on that topic.

Clearly, what we need to teach future managers (especially MBA students) about ethics depends crucially on what we understand the role of managers to be. And with regard to management ethics, we should carefully distinguish two very different educational needs, rooted in managers’ two very different roles.

One role managers play is that of decision-maker, and so the first issue to consider with regard to managerial ethics concerns the ethical behaviour of managers themselves. In this regard, business schools are in the business of educating decision-makers. Such being the case, it makes sense to teach MBA students about various ethical theories, about what can be learned from various scandals, about social expectations with regard to business, and so on. We want to instill in MBA students that doing the right thing matters, and give them the skills to figure out what that requires of them. (Relatedly: I blogged recently about the MBA Oath and the question of professionalizing management.)

The other role played by managers is that of a designer: managers essentially are tasked with designing organizations (or parts of organizations — teams, branches, functional units, and so on). And so the other key ethical issue with regard to managers is whether they will have the skills to design business units that make it easier, rather than harder, for subordinates to act ethically. MBA students, then, need to be taught about the ethically-salient elements of organizational design. They need to be taught, for example, about the kinds of incentive structures and the kinds of organizational cultures that foster rather than frustrate, good ethical decision-making, so that they can try to design such structures and cultures in the workplace.

But it’s worth noting that even individual ethical decision-making (and not just the design of decision-making contexts) itself involves design. As Caroline Whitbeck points out (in an excellent article* that I recently taught to my Business Ethics class), there is a very strong analogy to be made between ethical decision-making and the kind of design thinking that engineers engage in. Ethical decision-making, like engineering design, involves an attempt to solve a problem, in order to achieve certain objectives, taking into consideration a set of constraints. And it involves attempting to find a good solution, in a situation in which there may be multiple adequate solutions, no clear best solution, but many clearly unacceptable ones. Ethical decision-making, in other words, is precisely not like a multiple-choice exam question. Real ethical questions are very seldom of the form “Should we choose option A or option B?” More often, the question is “what options are feasible?” And, “what would those options look like, in practice?” And, “what series of steps will that option include, and what will happen if we do X and so-and-so does Y in response?” Ethical decision-making is a design process.

So, whether we are thinking about training MBAs to make particular decisions, or training them to build the contexts in which particular decisions are to be made, business schools are in the business of designing designers. The question, then, is not just which ethical principles ought to be used as the building materials of good decisions, but what ethical principles ought to govern the design process itself.
*Caroline Whitbeck “Ethics as Design: Doing Justice to Moral Problems” (from Hastings Centre Report, Vol. 26, No. 3, 1996).

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