Are Sustainable Businesses Ethical?

“Planet Ethics” 

One way that leaders may interpret “ethics” is to consider how our decisions and actions affect the long-term health of the natural world in which we live. If I interpret ethical leadership as planet-based, then I will make decisions that maximize benefits to the planet and minimize harm to natural resources, natural life and ecosystems.

 The Sustainable Business Approach

Many businesses that focus on operating in a way that does not harm the planet’s natural resources are considered sustainable. A sustainable business may have a zero footprint (re-using or recycling everything used and avoiding using new materials from nature) or will be moving toward reusing all production materials and generating no “waste.”

“Sustainability” is much broader than just protecting the planet’s resources, although that is the most widely used interpretation. Wikipedia defines sustainability for humans as “the potential for long-term maintenance of well being, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions.”

Sustainability interfaces with economics through the social and ecological consequences of economic activity. Moving towards sustainability is also a social challenge that entails, among other factors, international and national lawurban planning andtransport, local and individual lifestyles and ethical consumerism. Ways of living more sustainably can take many forms from reorganising living conditions (e.g., ecovillageseco-municipalities and sustainable cities), reappraising economic sectors (permaculturegreen buildingsustainable agriculture), or work practices (sustainable architecture), using science to develop new technologies (green technologiesrenewable energy, or new and affordable cost-effective practices) to make adjustments that conserve resources.


Are All Sustainable Businesses Ethical?

Are all sustainable businesses ethical? Not necessarily. There are ways that sustainable businesses can operate unethically, including pretending to be more sustainable than they really are, or making decisions that are dishonest or cause harm. Sustainability is multi-faceted and is just one of many areas of concern in leading an ethical organization.

All businesses, even those considered sustainable, need to include these variables (among others) in their business thinking to be sure that they are considering a broad enough spectrum of constituents and a long enough time-orientation when they make decisions:

  • The impact of my products and services on consumers and society
  • The long-term unintended consequences of my choices
  • The changing consumer mindset toward a broader definition of ethical business and avoiding harm
  • Balancing impact on the planet with impact on people and society
  • Ethical business behavior and an ethical culture


Ecological Overshoot and Sustainability Ethics

The Ethics of Sustainability Dunstan and Swan, National Park Service, at

Sustainable Everything: What C-Suite Leaders Need to Know About the New Thinking Linda Fisher Thornton, Leading in Context Blog, November 24, 2010

The Ethical Leadership Puzzle: A Broader View  Linda Fisher Thornton, Leading in Context Blog, February 16, 2011

Linda Fisher Thornton is Owner of Leading in Context LLC, a consulting firm helping business leaders lead responsibly in a complex world.  She is also Adjunct Assistant Professor of Leadership for the University of Richmond School of Continuing Studies.
To supplement the free resources for leading ethically provided under “Resources” and “Blog”, the Leading in Context® Store also sells complete training modules, discussion guides and graphics supporting ethical business leadership.  
Linda, What a fantastic visual representation of ethical behaviors for the workplace. I really like the concept of the floors and ceilings; it creates a great mental map of ethical boundaries. Thanks for sharing!                Jennifer V. Miller The People Equation  (U.S.) via blog comment  April 27, 2011
 @leadingincontxt  This is great! A perfect visual to begin to discuss and agree on what these behaviours look like.  @dianemthompson  Thompson Performance (Canada) via twitter July 6, 2011

About Linda Fisher Thornton
Author of 7 Lenses, Speaker, Bringing Out the Best in People and Organizations Through Proactive Ethical Leadership, CEO Leading in Context, 2014 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior, Adj. Assist. Prof. of Ethics and Leadership, UR SPCS

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