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Ethics in the Workplace: The Environmental Question

Continuing our series on Ethics in the Workplace, Luke Andreski discusses ways you and your business can help save the environment.

Cause for concern

We are now in the Anthropocene age of geological time: the time when humans changed everything. The surface of the Earth has been altered by farming, mining, civic infrastructure, urban sprawl. We rubber-stamp our activities through pollution, through the radioactive legacy of atomic power and human-induced acceleration of global warming. Our species has brought about the sixth extinction event, with the rate of vertebrate extinctions increasing a hundredfold over the last century.

And there’s a way to go before our full impact is clear.

We exert enormous influence and power over our environment. With this influence and power (as always, from an ethical perspective) comes responsibility. Even if you feel that the claims of climate change are exaggerated, the precautionary principle must be adopted. Our duty to future generations compels us to ask, ‘Is there any possibility whatsoever that these predictions are correct?’ And the conclusion is clear: whatever your bias, the risk cannot be totally dismissed.

Therefore, if we care about the risks for future generations, our duty is the same as if the worst of the science-based predictions were correct. We must take every necessary measure to ensure such appalling eventualities cannot come about. There is no wriggle room. Prevention must take precedence over procrastination, wishful thinking or doubt.

Individual action

So what can we do as individuals?

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, we must remain hopeful. Our actions count. They may seem insignificant when it’s just us we’re looking at – but multiply what we do as individuals by the thousands, the tens of thousands, or the millions, and suddenly we are seeing dramatic, world-changing impacts.

Secondly, there are some quite simple changes we can make in our everyday lives which, when scaled up, will certainly reduce the rate of climate change, resource depletion and pollution. Here are some of the most effective:

1.  Go car-free

2. Stop or reduce your travel by plane. (Electronic conferencing is the way of the future!)

3. Change to a green energy supplier or, where possible, install solar panels, heat exchangers or wind turbines

4. Adopt a plant based diet

5. If you need to own a car:

  • buy an electric or a more carbon-efficient model
  • car share
  • strive to reduce your mileage

6. Don’t burn anything. Stop using open fires or wood burning stoves

7. Retain, re-use and recycle.

 

Personal change

Even small individual changes can contribute to the sustainability of our world

Sustainability in the workplace

The actions available to us in our workplace will be constrained by the nature of our work and the willingness of our colleagues and employers to accept the importance of change. This said, the observations above and the moral objectives outlined in the first article in this series show that we have a moral duty to campaign for sustainability. We should therefore begin by encouraging colleagues to take the individual measures outlined above, for example through:

  • Offering cycle to work schemes
  • Encouraging car shares
  • Offering vegan alternatives in canteens or kitchens
  • Publicising the importance of reducing our personal carbon footprint.

More specific suggestions for greening our workplaces might be:

  • Introducing plants and trees where feasible: on roofs, in courtyards, in car parks or other open spaces available to the workplace
  • Ensuring recycling facilities are available and publicised
  • Encouraging recycling targets
     
  • Offering at-cost charging facilities for electric cars and bikes
  • Striving to improve office energy efficiency through measures such as replacing all lighting with LED and using energy-efficient appliances
  • Adopting an out-of-hours shutdown policy for lighting, heating and all electrical appliances
     
  • Sourcing sustainable energy supplies. Are solar, wind or heat-exchange energy sources feasible?
  • Reducing office temperature settings for heating, increasing them for cooling.
    Even a one degree change in either case can significantly reduce energy use
     
  • Minimising paper use and setting printer defaults to double-sided printing
     
  • Replacing older toilets with low-flow designs and adding low-flow aerators to taps
  • Replacing disposable cups or kitchenware with re-usable alternatives.

    These are crucial changes we should strive for in the workplace – but there are further actions we will wish to pursue for businesses as a whole.

Taking action as a business

Given the inertia of human society and the vast environmental impacts already taking place it would be easy to be despondent. It is therefore crucial to emphasise how capable we are as a species when we work together and cooperate. I’ve noted this before in this series. In just the last hundred years or so our achievements have been astounding. To name but a few:

  •  Eradication of smallpox and near-eradication of polio
  • Harnessing atomic power; deploying radioactivity in medicine
  •   Micro- and even nano-engineering
     
  •   Gene modelling; gene modification
  •   Reductions in hunger and poverty throughout the world (though much is still to be done)
  •   The internet, social media, our phones
     
  •   Geo-stationary satellites
  •   AI.

As a species we have shown ourselves capable of marvels – and business has played a key role in this.

Business, finance and industrial and commercial institutions of all kinds now need to play an equally critical role in our transition to a sustainable world.

Here are some suggestions for how we might meet this challenge:

  • Embrace sustainable change! It can be exhilarating, profitable and structurally beneficial as well as ethically sound
  • Think laterally. Look for unusual solutions. Are there new ‘green’ openings to explore? New ways of doing things into which your business might expand?Are there unexpected dividends which might arise from imaginative transformation?
  • Strive to source your supplies (including energy and water) from environmentally friendly sources; and seek ways to reduce the volumes consumed
  • Reduce or eliminate waste products – or, where unavoidable, see if they can be redirected locally for re-use by other businesses
  • Look for ways to minimise disposable wrappings and containers
  • Embed the moral imperative to ‘nurture and protect the biological world’ into the charter, articles, constitution or mission statement of your business
     
  • Reflect this imperative in the policies and processes that underlie the daily activities of the business.
  • Include responsibility for sustainability in job descriptions at exec and senior management levels
  • Educate colleagues and employees in the value of sustainability – and make this an on-going process
     
  • Encourage and reward the individual and workplace actions outlined above
     
  • Ensure your bank and pension funds are investing in environmentally benevolent practices; if not, move to banks or funds which do.

A common response to detailed proposals such as these is defeatism. Another is denial. I’ve answered the issue of denial above. You may question the degree of human-induced global warming, or that it is caused by humans, but you cannot prove there is no risk. Should the risk outcome (however unlikely) occur, then the impact will be considerable. Even if we’re talking low risk, we’re nevertheless talking potentially species-threatening impact… so the pragmatic and moral position must be to seek to reduce that risk as far as humanly possible.

As for defeatism (e.g. ‘Look at China or India! Their actions will far outweigh ours! So what’s the point?’), here are three answers:

  • Even if our individual or business contribution is small, it nevertheless remains ‘a contribution’, a part of the eventual whole. Putting our shoulder to the task increases the likelihood of success, and – who knows? – it may even be our tiny input which edges humanity across the threshold into a safer place…
  • Why not lead by example? To do nothing sets no example at all. To do our utmost sets a fine example – which other businesses, communities and nations may follow.
  • Whether our contribution is significant or otherwise, morality is never a case of waiting for others to do good before we do good also. For businesses wishing to act ethically it is our duty, regardless of what others do, to take the first moral step, the second and the third.

Lastly, and on a purely self-interested basis, it is worth noting that many of the measures outlined above will actually generate cost savings for businesses, in addition to enhancing their standing in society as a whole. Furthermore, doing nothing may eventually  prove to be, even for business, the most expensive option of all.

Taking action as HR

What is the role of HR professionals and teams in all of this? To do what they do best. To facilitate professionalism and integrity throughout any changes made by the businesses they serve; to lead by example; and to seek imaginative and practical ways for our businesses to assist in transitioning to a sustainable world.

Coming soon

In my next article I discuss whistleblowing and other ethical challenges, and ask, ‘Is transparency beneficial or detrimental to organisational well-being?’

Luke Andreski

Read more articles on our Phase 3 Insights page

About the Author:

Luke Andreski

Luke Andreski is a writer with over thirty years’ experience in the IT industry, specialising in People Technology implementation projects and change management. More recently he has focused on moral philosophy and psychology, with a particular interest in business leadership and management ethics.He is currently working in conjunction with Phase 3 on a series of articles investigating Ethics in the Workplace.

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