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Published July 29, 2008 10:51 AM

Going Green with Gravitas

The Moral Duty of Sustainable Businesses

By John Mizzoni

Ray Anderson is the CEO of Interface Corporation, a carpet tile manufacturing company with $1.1 billion in annual sales and 38 percent of the global market for carpet tiles. In 1994, Anderson vowed to change Interface into a sustainable business. Formerly, Interface was a company that merely complied with environmental regulations and through that compliance put 5 billion tons of carpeting in landfills.

Anderson sees Interface as a company that was abusive to the environment: It relied on petroleum both to power its production and as a material input for synthetic carpets; it produced large amounts of carbon emissions in the process; and it used large amounts of water for dyeing carpet. Anderson vowed to transform Interface into a company that would take nothing out of the earth that could not be recycled or regenerated, or that would harm the biosphere. The company switched its business model from selling carpeting to leasing floor-covering, and now accepts responsibility for the entire life-cycle of its product.

The story of Interface is well known because it has been a success. The company decreased its use of fossil fuels by 45 percent and its net greenhouse gas production by 60 percent. It uses one-third the water it used to, and cut its contribution to landfills by 80 percent. By many important measures, Interface is an environmental success. But because its sales are up 49 percent, Interface is also a business success.

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In light of global climate change, what must businesses do to maintain sustainable business practices? What are businesses' environmental responsibilities? Is redesigning business a moral responsibility?

There are several ethical aspects to these questions. In what follows, I focus on the moral responsibility of businesses to change, as Interface did, from taking lightly their responsibility to the environment, to becoming sustainable. I sketch three arguments that support the position that businesses have a moral responsibility to move toward sustainability.

Climate Change and Sustainable Business

A common feature of the following arguments is the notion that in some circumstances we can have greater responsibilities than usual. In the light of anthropogenic climate change, businesses have an even greater responsibility to engage in sustainable business practices. Although many businesses have denied that they have a duty to move toward sustainability and have fought against proposals for global climate legislation, strong arguments about why businesses have a moral obligation to move toward becoming sustainable businesses are premised upon global climate change.

When one has contributed to bringing a situation about, one has a greater responsibility to rectify that situation. The developed countries are responsible for a large percentage of historical emissions. Historically, the United States has produced more carbon dioxide emissions than any other country, but China is catching up. If we believe that people should contribute to fixing something in proportion to their responsibility for breaking it, then the developed nations owe it to the rest of the world to fix the problem in the atmosphere. U.S. businesses, too, can think of their responsibilities along these lines.

Global climate change is associated with carbon emissions. The U.S. has been the biggest emitter. U.S. business has been the biggest emitter, too. The U.S. should live up to its responsibility, and U.S. businesses should live up to their responsibilities, too. U.S. businesses therefore have a moral obligation to move toward sustainability. Non-U.S. companies also have a responsibility to move toward sustainability. But when one does the most damage, one has the most responsibility for rectification.

Profits Yield an Obligation

There is another aspect of the carbon emissions story: Businesses have profited from this arrangement. We can formulate a rough equation of past profitability with unsustainable business practices and carbon emissions. In the process of making profits in the past, businesses bear causal and moral responsibility for their emissions.

The argument is about fairness: Is it fair that businesses would benefit from these practices (reap profits), but not accept their share of moral responsibility for their effect on the global climate? No. They therefore have a responsibility to switch from unsustainable to sustainable business practices.

There may be a question about whether the argument yields strict deontic responsibility on the part of businesses. If so, the argument could be supplemented with virtue ethic considerations. When a person of integrity sees the benefit one has accrued, what responsibility would that person accept? Similarly, when a corporation with integrity realizes its contribution to global climate change, what would it accept as its responsibility?

Environmental heroes are individuals who inspire us with their virtues. Perhaps Ray Anderson and Interface are not acting out of duty, but out of virtue. Maybe it's Anderson's character that prompts him to seriously consider his environmental legacy. He claims he formerly did not think about the impact of his work: He didn't consider the full range of stakeholders of the Interface carpet business.

But now Interface recognizes itself as part of an environmental problem. It now sees that stakeholders were ignored by its former way of practicing business, and took it upon itself to restructure its way of doing business.

With Power Comes Responsibility

Another kind of circumstance in which we can assign a greater responsibility to one agent than to another is when an agent can make a substantial difference in providing aid without incurring devastating costs. Only one institution is powerful and pervasive enough to solve environmental problems says Ray Anderson, and that is business.

Businesses are powerful enough to make a substantial difference in shifting society toward sustainability. When an agent can make a substantially positive difference without incurring devastating costs to itself, it has a responsibility to do so. Businesses therefore have a responsibility to move toward sustainability.

But can businesses make the change toward sustainability without incurring devastating costs and running themselves out of business? Interface and many other companies have done so. We know that developed nations should be taking the lead in addressing global climate change. Successful businesses should too.

Going Green with Gravitas

I have offered three arguments to the effect that businesses have an obligation to move toward sustainability. U.S. businesses have contributed to global climate change, and bear responsibility for much damage. Because businesses have been profiting from their unsustainable practices of emitting large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, out of fairness they have a responsibility to rectify the situation and move toward sustainability. Finally, businesses have a responsibility to move toward sustainability because they can make a substantially positive difference without incurring devastating costs.

The responsibility to move toward sustainability is not an amorphous imperative for business. Sustainable businesses use resources only at rates that can be sustained over the long term, and recycle or reuse both the products themselves and the byproducts of production.

Throughout, I have been arguing that businesses have a moral responsibility to "move toward" sustainability rather than "become" sustainable. Becoming wholly sustainable in the fullest sense is not even something Interface has achieved. Nonetheless, one cannot claim that because businesses are unlikely to achieve ideal and full sustainability they therefore do not have any responsibility whatever to become sustainable. A parent who is unlikely to provide ideal care of his children still has a responsibility to take care of his children. One is not released from one's responsibilities because they cannot be perfectly fulfilled.

Even if we accept that businesses do have a moral responsibility to move toward sustainability, difficult questions remain. What specific criteria determine if a business is indeed moving toward sustainability?

Business managers still have decisions to make about what level of sustainability they are incrementally moving toward, and how to balance the interests of each of the business's stakeholders. Even though a company like Interface has not achieved full sustainability, it has made significant strides toward sustainability. So even if there is a lack of clarity concerning the details of achieving sustainability, there are enough success stories in green business to illuminate the path toward living up to the moral demands.

On environmental matters, we are now seeing the political will and the wheels of societal motivation begin to turn. More parties are approaching global climate change with an appropriate level of gravitas.

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