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What Is Environmental Ethics for Business? +10 Important Issues

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Tomorrow is Earth Day, an annual event at which 1 billion people in 192 countries take action to support the protection of the environment on which we all depend.

So, what does that have to do with your business? Plenty, as you’ll discover in this article. Recent research shows that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, so clearly, changing business practices could have a huge impact on the sustainability of human life on earth.

But even if you own or work at a much smaller company than the ones on that list, there’s still plenty you can do to have a positive impact on the environment. From examining your supply chain to changing your energy usage or modes of transportation, small changes can have large impacts.

Earth Day Recycling
Recycling can help you use resources better. (Image Source: Envato Elements)

In this article, we’ll look at environmental ethical issues in business. We’ll define environmental ethics and explain how it can be applied to the business world, and then we’ll look at ten important issues on which you can take simple action to improve the environment, not just on Earth Day but all year round. 

1. What Is Environmental Ethics?

First, let’s define environmental ethics. Although the term can have different meanings, a good summary is in this paper by Laszlo Zsolnai at the University of Budapest.

The underlying principle of environmental ethics is that nature has intrinsic value. This means that nature and its parts are not merely means for accomplishing one’s purposes but are ends in and for themselves.

This sounds simple enough, but it’s actually quite a radical reversal of centuries of anthropocentric thought. For centuries, it was easy to believe that nature existed for human beings to exploit. The more trees we could cut down and convert into magnificent buildings, the better our quality of life. The more coal we could mine for fuel, the more energy we had available to power factories and produce more life-enhancing goods. And best of all, no matter how much we used, there was always plenty more available.

But in recent decades, it’s become clear that this is no longer true. As our economies have grown, our impact on the environment has grown to the point where we are depleting the available resources, causing the extinction of thousands of animal species, and altering the climate of our planet.

Many businesses, however, have continued to operate on the traditional model. Environmental ethics aims to question the basic assumption that nature is there for our benefit. If nature has intrinsic value, how should that change the way your company uses energy or packages its products or treats animals? It can actually have large implications for the way you do business. We’ll look at all of that in the rest of this article.

2. How Environmental Ethics Applies to Business

Why should you consider environmental ethics in your business? Even if you accept that protecting the environment is important, isn’t that the job of government regulation? Shouldn’t a business just operate according to the motive of maximizing profit? And won’t these pesky environmental ethics end up eating into the bottom line?

Barriers to Considering Environmental Ethics

For many small businesses, cost is a concern. One study found that 78% of small businesses had no environmental management system. Despite that, most business owners actually wanted to reduce their environmental impact, but were held back by “resource constraints” as well as other factors like lack of support or guidance.

Another barrier is competitive pressure. If your competitors are importing low-cost goods with no regard for environmental sustainability, won’t you be at a disadvantage if you insist on the highest ethical standards?

These are valid concerns. Even if a business is not all about profit, it does need to make a profit to survive. And although some environmental policies can also have a positive bottom-line impact, others can add to cost. What’s important is to look at the overall impact for your business, including the positive effects, which we’ll look at now.

Benefits of Considering Environmental Ethics

There are many side benefits to being a business that stands for something other than profit.

You may enjoy a positive brand image, so that customers will buy your products even if they’re a little more expensive than competing ones. For example, UK company Brothers We Stand sells men’s clothing that comes with a full breakdown of the social and environmental impact of its production. You can easily find cheaper shirts from retail chains with looser standards, but plenty of customers are willing to pay more for the peace of mind that comes from buying something in tune with their own values.

You may also be able to attract better employees if you appeal to their own values and position yourself as a great place to work for ethical as well as financial reasons. Surveys have found that millennials, in particular, are more motivated by values than money. Consider this 2015 article summarizing the recent research:

More than 50% of millennials say they would take a pay cut to find work that matches their values, while 90% want to use their skills for good.

To put it simply, there is a clear business value to having business values. You can find out more about this in the following tutorials:

3. What You Can Do: 10 Important Issues to Consider

So now that we have covered what environmental ethics means and how it relates to your business, let’s get practical. What can you do to put environmental ethics into practice at your company?

The specifics may vary depending on what kind of company it is and what industry you’re in, but there are some common threads. Here are ten important issues for you to consider, with ideas on what you could do to improve your environmental practices.

1. Full Cost Accounting

The main idea of environmental ethics is that nature has intrinsic value and shouldn’t be treated merely as a resource to be used up. But traditional accounting doesn’t match up with that vision. It only measures direct monetary costs, with no accounting for things like pollution and environmental waste, which are sometimes referred to as "negative externalities" in economic theory.

To be consistent with environmental ethics, you would need to account for those externalities. One approach is called full cost accounting, or sometimes environmental full cost accounting. It’s a complex area, but I like to simplify it by thinking of those signs you sometimes see in shops: “If you break it, you pay for it.” Full cost accounting aims to capture a business’s true costs by measuring the resources it uses, the waste and pollution it generates, and other social and environmental impacts.

So, consider implementing full cost accounting for your business. It’s not a ‘quick fix’ by any means, but the time it takes will be worth it. Of all the things listed in this article, this is the one that’s most certain to help you think differently about how your business operates.

2. Energy Efficiency

Did I just say ‘quick fix’? This next item definitely falls into that category. Simply by reviewing your energy usage and identifying ways to be more efficient, you can help the environment while also saving money.

Use this Better Business Guide to Energy Saving to help you walk through the steps. Basically, you just need to check your office, shop, factory or other workplace for compliance with basic energy common sense. For example:

  • Are you using energy-efficient lighting?
  • Are your heating and cooling systems properly controlled by thermostats?
  • Are windows and doors insulated to stop all that expensive cooling/heating from escaping?
  • Is your computer equipment operating efficiently?
  • Are you and your employees regularly switching things off when not in use?

Whereas the first item was about rethinking your business in terms of the big picture, this one is about small wins that can add up to significant savings. Check out these workplace energy-saving tips for more ideas.

3. Energy Sources

As well as looking at energy usage, you could evaluate the sources of that energy. There are plenty of alternatives to fossil fuels these days, and you could switch to an energy supplier that generates its energy from renewable sources.

For example, in the UK, there are several companies, such as Ecotricity and Good Energy, that provide electricity for homes and businesses from sources like wind power and solar panels. Similar providers exist in other countries too, so do some research to find them in your area and get a quote. This is another simple way to reduce your business’s environmental impact and carbon footprint.

4. The Supply Chain

When businesses look at their environmental impact, they often focus on their own direct contributions. But, as we’ve seen, environmental ethics demands a more holistic approach.

So, examine your entire supply chain: all of the companies that provide all of the components for your final products. Ask yourself:

  • How are those components built?
  • How are they transported?
  • How were the original materials obtained?
  • What does the entire process look like from the mining of the raw materials through to the finished item reaching the consumer?

Look at every step of the process and identify the full environmental impact at each stage, and then look for opportunities for improvement. If information is not available, then ask for it. If a supplier doesn’t want to comply with the best environmental practices, look for one that will. This is another item that will take time, but have big payoffs.

5. Packaging

This year’s Earth Day has a particular focus on ending plastic pollution. The majority of the world’s plastic ends up in oceans, where it breaks up into small pieces that kill marine life. There are 51 trillion microplastic particles in the ocean today—500 times more than the number of stars in our galaxy.

Much of this is due to unnecessary packaging or storage—for example, Americans throw away an estimated 100 billion plastic grocery bags each year, with each bag being used for just 12 minutes and taking years to decompose. (You can find these facts and more in the Earth Day Plastic Pollution Quiz.)

Does your business contribute to plastic pollution or help to alleviate it? If you are contributing, then look at alternatives:

  • Cut out unnecessary packaging of your products.
  • Replace plastic packaging with eco-friendly materials that will decompose quickly or, ideally, durable containers that can be reused.
  • Run campaigns or provide incentives to encourage your customers to reuse or recycle packaging.

6. Animal Welfare

The main idea of environmental ethics—that nature has intrinsic value—applies to animals too. Other species are not put on earth for our exploitation; they have a right to fair treatment.

What that means in practice is for you to work out according to your own ethical framework. Some people will want to avoid any and all uses of animal products, while others may prefer to insist that animals are treated humanely.

Considering environmental ethics means considering the impact of your business practices on other species and deciding what policies to put in place to mitigate or improve that impact. For example, do you or your suppliers use products that were tested on animals? Do your production processes involve clearing land and destroying animals’ habitats?

Once you’ve assessed the impact, decide where to draw the line and what animal welfare standards to demand from your own business and your suppliers.

7. Pollution

It’s likely that your business creates pollution in multiple ways, from the energy you use to direct pollution from manufacturing processes. So, examine ways to reduce that.

For example, you could look at ways to manufacture your products with fewer emissions, or reduce your overall carbon footprint by implementing the energy changes we talked about earlier or changing your transportation policies (more on that next).

Or if you can’t reduce pollution, you could look into using offsets. These are donations that you make to invest in clean energy or planting trees to offset the damage you’ve done. One example is at Carbonfund.org, where you can calculate your company’s footprint and make a charitable donation to offset it.

8. Transportation

Transportation is a major source of pollution and other negative environmental effects, so examine the way people and products are transported within your company. Can you reduce the need for transportation (for example, by switching to a local supplier) or switch to more eco-friendly transportation (e.g. train instead of plane)?

Also consider ways to encourage staff to use eco-friendly transport options. For example, some businesses provide incentives for their staff to commute to work via public transport instead of car, or to share a ride instead of driving individually. You can also make savings (both environmental and monetary) by holding more meetings via videoconference instead of flying people to different locations. And allowing people to work from home can avoid pollution from the commute.

9. Resource Usage

We talked about packaging already, but businesses use a lot of other resources. So, examine your practices and see where you can make improvements. For example:

  • Can you recycle more?
  • Can you use less to begin with?
  • Can you go paper free in your office, or at least reduce unnecessary paperwork?

Think less in terms of one-off items and more in terms of repeating processes. For example, if you run a café, a small change like providing food and drinks in reusable instead of disposable containers could make a huge difference over time.

10. Putting It Into Practice

All of the things we’ve talked about are important, but you can’t do them on your own. In order to be successful, you’ll need to get your staff on board, ensuring that they understand the importance of environmental ethics and know what they need to do to support it.

That means creating a clear environmental policy for your business, incorporating all of the points we’ve discussed, along with any others you want to add. Then you’ll need to support that with staff training and reinforce your commitment by constantly emphasizing the importance of environmental ethics in your communication with employees. You can use Earth Day itself as a great way to kick things off—more ideas on what to do in tomorrow’s post.

It’s easy to say the right thing, but doing the right thing involves embedding respect for the environment in all aspects of the business, and that takes time, effort, and organization.

Conclusion

In this article, you’ve learned all about environmental ethical issues in business. We’ve looked at what environmental ethics means and how it can be applied to the business world, and we’ve covered ten things you can do to put environmental ethics into practice in your business.

As I mentioned, the specifics can vary a lot for different companies in different industries, but I hope this post has given you a useful framework with which to think about environmental ethics and to construct environmental policies that make sense for your particular business.

Tomorrow, we’ll focus in on Earth Day itself and look at how you can mark the occasion. See you then!

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