Business and the “Planetary Boundaries” (Part 4): Some Important Business Ethics Considerations

MBS Planetary Boundaries
© NosUA – iStock.com

In our previous blogs (please find it here: part 1, part 2, part 3), we wrote about an engaging learning experience that we have run in Munich and other locations. In that project, students created amateur documentary films on global sustainability  – and related key business challenges around the Planetary Boundaries Framework. This fun, engaging, powerful learning approach (students as amateur documentary film-makers) brought important business ethics insights, relevant, perhaps, to any (responsible) manager – and to any instructor. In this blog, we want to reflect on those ethical considerations that are so intimately linked to global environmental change.

Observing and analyzing the ethical perspectives within our student videos provided another layer of dimensional understanding as to how they had evaluated newly-acquired knowledge and information. Through an embodied learning experience, the connection between head and heart was seen to promote a deeper level of engagement. However, in order to reach this “learning nirvana”, we also need to be aware and understand our students’ previous learning experiences. Historically, many of our students have been subject to academic learning primarily through strict repetition in authoritarian-led environments where they were tasked with memorizing and “regurgitating” theories and examples – often without full understanding of application or the ability to adapt content. This background experience can inhibit our goals of deep learning where we strive to help build resilient thinking on an individual, community and ultimately a societal level, through the development of connecting “heads, hands and hearts”, as Ken Bain and Michael Sipos and others have stated.

The two approaches could not be more different – one requiring little to no original cognitive process with limited useful outcomes, and the other demanding complex analysis through a process of discovery with an infinite range of possibilities. Perhaps we could safely say that the world has a sufficient par level of corporate decision makers engaging in management practices that look to exploit finite resources without consideration for replenishment or responsibility. Our contribution objective therefore is to help develop business managers who understand resource “realism”, accountability and responsibility while simultaneously taking on the role of “Earth Stewards”. It is for this reason that we employ amateur film-making as an integral component of our MBA curriculums.

MBS Planetary Boundaries

Different “Versions” of Justice and Equality

Unlike national borders, ethics do not have tidy, definitive edges and nor do they evolve in a vacuum. Across our international cohorts, we observed different “versions” and heuristics of justice and equality. Although through increased urbanization and globalization, we may gain the impression that people are becoming more similar or “McDonaldized”, as George Ritzer would say, distinct differences were visible between our geographical locations. What was clearly unethical for one was seen as palatable for another under the same circumstances. These variations formed a continuum of ethical points influenced by societal norms, family upbringing, personal experiences and geo-economic circumstances.

Variations were emphasized between the geographical locations of our business school classrooms, with a connection being drawn between the level of economic development of the respective cities (Munich, Perth, Singapore and Dubai) and the students’ interpretation of justice.

The emotional perspective of the films was a dominant factor in the deeper learning analysis, often resulting in students being pushed into an iterative cycle of question and debate. Many times, it was evident that the filming exercise revealed conflicting perspectives that they had previously either ignored or been unaware of – perhaps even choosing to push it aside for fear of being unable to do anything meaningful about it. Frequently, engaging in this grey zone caused increasing uncertainty as the foundations of their moral standing became unstable and challenged. Many struggled with what they should do with this new perspective, finding it difficult to align it with their otherwise predictable MBA journey thus far.

Having the opportunity to venture outside of the classroom and physically engage in the reality of issues, facilitated this unfamiliar (mental) territory. This is when previous disregard could no longer be ignored – where their innocence (or ignorance) underwent a significant stress test.

“Step up”, Citizens of the World!

In addition to the videos’ ability to evoke emotion through imagery, emotion was also expressed through creative narrative and dialogue. The script became an important tool to project their moral stance and influence the audience – often inviting opinion through rhetorical questioning that challenged common assumptions. The impression gained was that this was used to encourage (and even provoke) the audience to take responsibility and “step up” as a citizen of the world – albeit at arm’s length from behind the lens.

Ethical judgement was seen to be implied through interjected “tongue in cheek” humor – subtly portraying stakeholders as “good” or “bad” characters through role play or fictitious cartoon images, e.g. angel wings for do-gooders, skull and crossbones for villains. What was also interesting to note was when students took license with a colloquial language style using sarcasm to reflect moral judgement on the actions (or lack thereof) of individuals or organizations. These moral measurements of group and individual behaviors connected to their interpretations of important values such as integrity and accountability. It was evident that these judgements were taken more so from the viewpoint of a concerned citizen rather than what might have been a dampened outcry of moral standing from behind the desk of a corporate decision maker. It was rare to detect any strong ethical judgment on government organizations – even in the most extreme of the individualist cultural contexts – although they were not entirely excused for either a lack of action or their participation in creating ecological and social injustice.

Responsibility Should Be Distributed

Some took the stance that government should be the driving force behind instilling “personal duty and commitment” amongst citizens and to create more balance between conservation and economic growth. The threats to biodiversity and exploitation of land in the interest of “progress” to accommodate a growing population and urbanization trend was often criticized as irresponsible behavior. Unanimously across all campuses was the opinion that development and progress should not come at the expense of the constituents that it is looking to provide for, and that readily included the environment as a member of that equation.

Films almost always concluded with remarks voicing concern that one stakeholder alone could not be expected to achieve this balance and that collaboration and shared responsibility should be distributed between civil society, government and industry. Where some promoted strong political action with local government, others recommended to act through consumerism, supporting those organizations and industries who actively take on caretaker roles with our eco-systems and try to right the wrongs of past injustices.

In an evaluation about how business – in particular the tourism sector – manages resources, the topic of “blind” consumption arose throughout many student videos. When water-poor regions struggle to access the basic necessities of life, how can we justify filling luxuriously-sized swimming pools in high rises for the pleasure of the few and privileged? One student group brought forward the notion of “virtual” resource measurement i.e. how much fresh water was used to create the goods and services we sell? New accounting methods now available to organizations calculate how much fresh water is used to produce products and services they sell, prompting consideration of production and consumption patterns. Within the dilemma around tourism, students also weighed overall benefits versus damages, even when it came to the growing trend of eco-tourism. Even with these precautionary approaches, the loss of biodiversity and ocean acidification were often still unfavorable outcomes.

Which Apple Will You Choose?

Focus on the “distribution dilemmas” also highlighted the high social and environmental costs of food waste from abundant hotel buffets and supermarkets – even our own tables. Cosmetic filtering from the consumer has evolved to deem perfectly useable food to be unworthy of purchase due to being “imperfect” in size, shape or color. The level of sensitivity around this selection process was vividly apparent from the comparison made between two pieces of fruit – one photo-shop perfect contrasted with one showing minor blemishes – posing to the viewer “which apple will you choose?”. Questions followed looking at the amount of water used to grow food: What village, town or city gave up their water to produce this food item for us and why do “we” perceive it to have any less value because it does not conform to unwritten beautification rules? Continuing the waste cycle story, students also looked at the consequences of how we dispose of this waste – into landfills which we allow to increasingly devour more and more land as a direct result of our insatiable consumption habits. The hidden costs of maintaining these waste sites were connected with (indirect or direct) expenses borne by governments, which in turn are funded from the taxes imposed on citizens. Here again, the “student lens” carefully weighed the high ecological and social costs of these aesthetic values, showing a clear disconnect between individual production and consumption.

Industry was also identified as a key contributor in the ethical discussion around “cost”. In particular, the mining industry was criticized for the overwhelming unsustainable withdrawals it makes on natural resources (fresh water and groundwater, land use change), suggesting that these major “takers” need to balance the equation with off-setting initiatives that replenish biodiversity, e.g. tree planting. Some students investigated and presented further solutions to save governments millions (of tax payers dollars) spent in waste cleanups through the redesign of waste cycles using aquaponics, vertical indoor gardens and artificial oxygenating plants in river systems.

Thinking as an Earth Citizen

Wider resource management was subsequently considered beyond immediate surroundings and linked to a broader perspective of global responsibility, identifying the “long arm” of environmental issues and the necessity of thinking (and behaving) as an Earth citizen and not just as a citizen of one city or country. A sense of caring taken from the point of view of one, Australian native river fish, posed the question, “why should you care about a single species in a remote river, what difference does it make in your daily life?” effectively connected the “here and now” to very real future consequences. It was clear that students also were prompted to think seriously about the challenges their own children could be facing as a result of their actions today. One group mentioning “inter-generational equity” while examining the current volumes of fresh water in the production of wine, questioning resource sacrifices made “for the sake of prosperity”.

A projection of stewardship was supported not only through the visual image but also through expressive elements of music. Passages of serenity often accompanied ethereal images of Gaia, projecting a calm, even romantic overview of the relationship between nature and society. In striking contrast, the dramatic sense of ethical responsibility was also portrayed in operatic-style crescendos, designed for maximum impact and leaving the viewer with the single idea, “we are simply temporary residents on Earth” (and that is why we need to take care of it).

Remarkably, several other groups clearly wished their children to have the same opportunities to enjoy outdoor recreational facilities as they did in their childhood: “I hope that my children can continue enjoying this park as I have for the last 20 years” and “I want my children to inherit an ocean full of biodiversity, not jellyfish.”

As business people, as students or merely as long-life learners, linking global environmental issues (and the planetary boundaries) with pressing business ethics dilemmas, is a much needed task. Engaging, fun, embodied, experiential learning opportunities such as the one we have reported here are certainly needed in front of the urgency and challenges that we face.

to part 5: Interacting Boundaries, Interacting Risks

Prof. Dr. Jose M. Alcaraz
About Prof. Dr. Jose M. Alcaraz 11 Articles
With a PhD on the Digitalization of Human Capital Management, Professor Alcaraz has served as the Director of several global MBAs, developing his academic career at IESE Business School (Barcelona, his hometown), Raffles Design Institute (Shanghai), Dubai University/Leicester University (Dubai), Barna Management School (Santo Domingo, Caribbean region), Murdoch University (Perth, Australia), and Munich Business School (Munich).Professor Dr. Alcaraz has published widely in diverse media outlets and peer-reviewed journals, including the Academy of Management Learning & Education, the German Journal of Human Resource Management, Information and Organization, Organization, Business & Society, Competitiveness Review, etc.Before moving to academia, Dr. Alcaraz had several leadership roles in the software industry, and collaborated closely in Spain and Latin America with The RBL Group (a consultancy firm, co-founded by Dave Ulrich, at the forefront of strategic HR transformation, leadership capability development, and strategy implementation).His research has focused on several management, sustainability, and pedagogical innovation fields. Recently, Dr. Alcaraz is captivated by the power of imagination, specifically science fiction, and its capacity to help us to envision trends and future complex socio-technical scenarios. In his latest research project, he is collaborating with SciFutures (“the coolest company in the world”, according to Fast Company magazine) to explore the power of Sci-Fi to nurture storytelling, and drive scenario-building and innovation.
Keary Shandler
About Keary Shandler
Keary Shandler is a lecturer and researcher at Murdoch University Dubai.