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Born To Be Wild
Corporate Social Responsibility | Peer-Reviewed Research

Born To Be Wild

Is It Time For Corporations To Rethink Their Views Of The Environment?

Based on research by Douglas A. Schuler, Andreas Rasche, Dror Etzion and Lisa Newton

Is It Time For Corporations To Rethink Their Views Of The Environment?

  • The American concept of corporate environmental ethics emerged in the late 19th century, when it became clear that exploiting the nation’s lumber supply was no longer sustainable.  
  • Today, “corporate social responsibility,” “environment management” and “corporate political activity” are all familiar terms — but ones fraught with confusion.
  • In the long view, all business benefits from and requires access to nature’s riches.

Business hasn’t historically seen nature as a friend. In the United States, the concept of environmental ethics only emerged at the end of the 19th century, when it became clear that exploiting the nation’s lumber supply was no longer sustainable.  

In response, government and industry joined together to create legislation setting aside critical forestland. Similarly, almost 100 years later, when the nation’s water and air reached unprecedented levels of contamination, the U.S. government implemented new pollution standards. Firms began to learn it was possible to do business in a way that both preserved their profits and the environment. 

Today, terms such as “corporate social responsibility,” “environment management” and “corporate political activity” are all supposed to reflect this notion. But corporate practice toward the environment remains fraught with tension. Is there any reason beyond immediate gain for businesses to protect the environment?

In a recent paper, Rice Business professor Douglas Schuler and coauthors Andreas Rasche of Copenhagen Business School, Dror Etzion of McGill Unversity and Lisa Newton of Fairfield University examined this question, proposing what corporate responsibility would look like if businesses saw saving the environment as being valuable in and of itself. 

As a society, Schuler and his team argue, we already do that. We don’t treat the Great Smoky Mountains, or Yosemite National Park or Sequoia National Park as resources for future exploitation. Instead, we protect these treasures because their existence is valuable in and of itself — and to the lives we want to lead. 

Thus, in 1964, when people began flocking to national parks in numbers large enough to endanger them, Congress created a new designation, the “wilderness area,” for tracts of land that would be preserved as forever wild. It was the first official U.S. recognition that the environment provides humanity with “services” beyond a supply of raw materials — services such as stabilizing the watershed, cleaning the air and protecting natural species.

Once we think of the environment as having value beyond a source of direct economic gain, it’s a short leap to perceiving animals as having certain intrinsic value — and rights — too, the researchers note. Similarly, one can imagine entire ecosystems having a fundamental right to survive and flourish. The school of thought known as deep ecology goes further, maintaining that just as people should not be allowed to exploit other people, they should not be allowed to exploit the ecosystem.

Some of this thinking may be too far into the woods for the average corporation, Schuler’s team acknowledges. But, he and his colleagues argue, there is real value in incorporating non-utilitarian environmental concepts into business culture. Most big companies already fund environmental management, corporate responsibility and political activities. But, the scholars add, they need to think of environmental defense as more than simply turning off the office lights at night.

Imagine, for example, an environmental management policy that recognizes that sustainability practices should not be defined only by the benefits they bring shareholders. In this view, managers take into account both the upstream and downstream effects of potential polluting activities — and factor them all into their decisions. Then corporations would understand such issues as risk differently. It’s already been done: IKEA, Levi’s and Unilever, for example, have recognized that multinational companies cannot exist in a world devoid of trees and fresh water or filled with oceans laden with plastic. 

Instead of managers simply pursuing established rules — “turn off the lights when you leave work” — Schuler and his team propose that they could act as individuals, charged with finding alternative ways to view the corporate role toward nature. In this scenario, corporate managers would essentially lead the corporation’s move from a profit-only framework to one in which sustaining the planet — which, of course, ultimately sustains the corporation — is itself a critical business goal. 

Corporate social responsibility would also take on a different tone if the view of environmental priorities were longer. Already, a few corporations have taken major steps toward environmental protection even when there’s no immediate financial benefit. Consider the widow of North Face cofounder Doug Tompkins, who donated one million acres to Chile for new national parks in the Patagonia region. 

True, the riches of the natural world helped create the North Face empire and are essential if the company is to stay in business in the future. In the long view, however, all business — and all human survival — depends on stewarding nature’s riches. It’s imperative for firms to value, and preserve, those resources now. 

Douglas Schuler is associate professor of business and public policy at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

To learn more, please see: Schuler, D., Rasche, A., Etzion, D., & Newton, L. (2017). Corporate sustainability management and environmental ethics. Business Ethics Quarterly, 27(2), 213-237.

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