State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Sustainability Ethics and Metrics

By Adela J. Gondek 

Credit: Flickr Sterling College
Credit: Flickr Sterling College

Today’s increasing emphasis on metrics in sustainability policy and management presents an interesting challenge for ethics. When ethics are discussed, probably one of the last things to come to mind is measuring them, particularly in numeric terms. We tend to speak of individuals or institutions, including political institutions, simply as ethical or unethical. The same terms are applied summarily to their actions. We might speak more specifically by adding the word very ethical or unethical. It would be surprising, however, to hear an individual or institution described numerically as, for example, an ethical two or seven on a scale of one to 10. Ethics are commonly regarded as simply too contingent, especially upon personal perception, to be reliably measured.

Sustainability policy and management promote sustainability ethics even while moving toward the increased development and application of metrics, however. These are intended to help us see and compare progress in the relationship between economic and environmental costs and benefits with greater precision than otherwise might be possible. Metrics can be globally understood, moreover, insofar as they adhere to scientific methods. Under these circumstances, can ethics be fitted readily and harmoniously into the study and practice of sustainability policy and management? As methods of study and practice become increasingly scientific, do ethics become increasingly awkward, distant and perplexing? Certainly, they seem to be so in relation to modern science as a whole. This frames the results of its explorations in the form of empirically verifiable data, which ethics seem to elude.

It has long been observed that management depends upon measurement, which itself depends upon definition. This is captured in the saying, define, measure, manage it. 

Conveniently, the evolution of environmental ethics, most rapidly since the 1980s, has provided many definitions of ethics relevant to sustainability policy and management. Environmental ethics have been framed with a view to matters ranging from the conservation to the distribution of resources. A primary strand concerned with wilderness met in the 1980s with environmental justice. Concerned especially with the poor, this focuses instead on disparities in living conditions among human populations, both urban and rural. The two strands have converged in sustainability ethics. These also give consideration to future generations, while diverging into water, food, energy, waste, climate and other sector-based ethics. Coincidentally, business ethics together with organizational ethics have developed increasingly since the 1970s, often with reference to corporate social responsibility. These ethics, too, have converged in sustainability ethics, which, like sustainability policy and management, are concerned with both the economic and environmental impacts of organizational activity.

In view of this extended effort to define ethics with regard to harmful impacts unrecognized in earlier times, we can now say there is sufficient definition to venture measurement. Conveniently, the rapid evolution of ethics since the late 20th century also gives us an idea of how they can be measured. Since 1995, the non-profit organization Transparency International has published its annual Corruption Perceptions Index and other related reports. Although the index presents data on entire nations, ranking them by the extent of their corruption, its operability suggests that such an index could be designed for application to private sector organizations and distinct government agencies. This has already been done to an extent by the non-profit Global Reporting Initiative. Since 1997, it has produced several generations of guidelines according to which organizations can assess particularly their environmental impacts. Many indicators are provided for the purpose of assessment. Yet, it is possible that organizations will manipulate their responses.

Combining the techniques of these organizations could result in a more accurate measure of ethical performance. Transparency International provides unofficial information on entire regimes; the Global Reporting Initiative provides official information on particular organizations.  Sustainability ethics might instead be measured by obtaining and including unofficial confidential assessments, even those of potential or actual whistle-blowers, from within organizations, including distinct government agencies. Indicators pertaining to material corruption, not only bribery but also subtle conflicts of interest over government regulation, would be included. Other indicators would pertain to what might be called relational corruption, including the diminished capacity of staff under problematic forms of narcissistic leadership. Undue environmental impact would be indicated as socio-ecological corruption. Presently we lack full ethical assessments, both individual and comparative, of government agencies and private sector organizations. Yet we could move from definition to measurement of ethics, and from there to enhancing the ethical impact of sustainability management.


Adela Gondek is a Lecturer in Discipline in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University.

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