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Progress in business ethics, but for some companies new climate change, sustainability policies are a heavy lift

(This commentary was first published on February 26, 2021 as,”Ethics Matter – Business Ethics: What Do We Owe Our Future Generations in Planetary Citizenship?”, on the website of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management.)

“Ethics” is growing.

That is, “ethics” as a key aspect of conducting business in the evolving global society. Communicating that progress (and shortcomings) represents a great opportunity for public relations professionals who, by strategic function, operate at the interface between an organization and its publics as well the general public.

Just this month – Global Alliance’s “Global Ethics Month” – two surveys of global business made the case for that assertion.

The “World’s Most Ethical Companies”   has just been published by Ethisphere Institute, “a global leader in defining and advancing the standards of ethical business” :

The 2021 World’s Most Ethical Companies Honoree List. In 2021, 135 companies are recognized for their unwavering commitment to business integrity. The honorees span 22 countries and 47 industries and include 9 first-time honorees and six companies that have been named to the list every year since its inception [2009]”

This is the Ethisphere mantra for its honoree list: “Good. Smart. Business. Profit” and this: “Ethisphere’s notion that financial value and ethics are inexorably tied together has been borne out through long-term tracking of how the stock prices of publicly traded honorees compare to the U.S. Large Cap Index …   this commitment to supporting companies that are focused on building sustainable business [emphasis added] – one that will grow responsibly for many years – is what continues to define us as an organization.”

Here’s an enduring definition of sustainable development: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

So, the business ethics question: What do we owe to future generations – especially in terms of planetary citizenship?

Many companies are addressing that existential question by integrating sustainability into their strategic business plans. The Wall Street Journal’s new survey on that subject:

Explore the Full WSJ Sustainable Management Ranking 

That survey  takes a broad view of sustainability, assessing a company’s leadership and governance practices for their ability to create value for shareholders over the long term. Its criteria: a company’s human and social capital, environment, and business model/innovation.

Still, it must be said: Meeting evolving standards of business-ethics-cum-profits can be quite challenging. That is certainly true for even the sincerest company efforts on climate change. Compliance with current regulatory standards is now but the minimum. (And, of course, there are companies that don’t try or are even miscreant.)

From a new critical assessment by The New York Times  What’s Really Behind Corporate Promises on Climate Change?   :

“Stashing emissions is difficult. Businesses must reliably measure how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses they are responsible for. Then companies have to find cleaner energy sources without hurting their operations … The task gets even harder when companies begin the process of reducing so-called Scope 3 emissions — pollution caused by suppliers and customers. At oil companies, for example, Scope 3 would include emissions from cars that use gasoline … for all these ambitious targets, even some executives argue that the current voluntary approach won’t ensure the required reduction in emissions.”

Public relations professionals in business organizations – and at many other involved, interested institutions in society – will recognize that the ethical foundations of global commerce and finance now require special, sustained attention by well-trained and experienced strategists in two-way communicators.

The Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management is an established resource and forum for sharing such intelligence and outcomes.