State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Ethics for Sustainability Management and Finance

MS in Sustainability Management Faculty Adela Gondek

Adela Gondek, a professor in several programs at Columbia University, is offering a redesigned course as part of the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program in the Fall of 2018. The class will be about ethics at the intersections of sustainability management and finance. A political scientist with specialization in political theory and American politics and policy, she acquired her PhD at Harvard University in the Department of Government, with cross-registration to the law and divinity schools, and the Kennedy School of Government. She has served as a legislative analyst in the Massachusetts State Senate, with investigative specialization in consumer product safety, prison reform, and model judicial practice. At Columbia, she initially taught American political theory in the Department of Political Science, then began teaching applied ethics in the School of International and Public Affairs, the School of Professional Studies, and the Earth Institute’s Program in Sustainable Development. She has designed courses on corrupt practices, sector-based environmental justice, organizational ethics, and the sustainability worldview.

Professor Gondek’s research interests include practical and theoretical ethics, cross-sector corruption, organizational leadership and management, the Arthurian narrative and code of civility, and transformative learning. Writing English variations, she co-authored the volume Poems of Enlightenment with Jingtian Guo, poet; Rongxiang Jia, poet; Tigang Guo, calligrapher; and Yujie Kang, artist. Currently, she is co-authoring a paper on finance ethics with Rachel Fichter, chief learning officer at S&P Global Ratings, NYC, and Katharina Weghmann, director of Integrity Solutions at Ernst & Young in Berlin, Germany.

More than any other economic sector, the financial sector is one with which all others inevitably transact. Their developmental potentiality and progress, whether corporate or civic, is interdependent with that of the financial industry. A collapse or even lapse of integrity in this industry can have critical impacts on all other economic sectors, just as the deterioration of ecosystems does.

More than any other economic sector, the financial sector is one with which all others inevitably transact. A collapse or even lapse of integrity in this industry can have critical impacts on all other economic sectors.

“Sustainability is at high risk in such circumstances, all the more so in a world increasingly shaped by capital. Whether capital can be ethical is not simply an intellectual question but especially a practical question, focusing on the practice of capital itself,” says Gondek.

Gondek offered some information regarding her course, Ethics of Sustainability Management and Finance.

Q: What do you plan to cover in the course, and what are some details about the finance portion?

A: Drawing upon a range of relevant case studies, the course addresses the ethical challenges, pathways, and practices of sustainability, in its intersectionality with finance. The challenges are broadly grouped into processes of commodification, according to which more of whatever seems to count in life acquires economic value, and processes of financialization, according to which the financial sector has an increasingly dominant role in deciding and developing such value. The pathways are also broadly grouped into two categories, financial flows and barriers, including the distribution and concentration of wealth, which precondition the rights and responsibilities governing the use and acquisition of goods. Similarly, the practices are grouped into negatively and positively deviant behaviors, including collusive and transformational decision making.

Q: What do you believe sustainability professionals should know about Ethics for Sustainability Management and Finance that they might not be learning already in the classroom?

A: People often make one or another of two common assumptions about ethics. Either ethics are assumed to be so commonly understood that to explore them is practically needless; or ethics are assumed to be so personally, culturally or situationally relative that to address them is practically useless. As a result, it cannot be assumed that the ethical dimension of sustainability is already addressed systematically in the classroom. Indeed, it may be overlooked, for two additional reasons. The first is that sustainability ethics, which can be viewed as a second generation of environmental ethics, have emerged recently, largely in the 21st century; so they are not necessarily familiar. A second reason is that sustainability is often understood to be inherently ethical, which obscures the fact that those involved with sustainability quarrel nonetheless about “the right thing to do”. It is vital for any professional to understand such conflict, which arises among sectors, cultures and nations regarding temporally and spatially far-reaching agendas, and at the neighborhood level regarding even single project plans. Added to these factors is political partisanship, which can obscure and infiltrate the definition and content of ethics and has done so significantly in the field of sustainability.

Q: Is there any work you are involved in currently, related to Ethics for Sustainability Management and Finance?

A: Currently I am working on two projects related directly to the content of the course. One is a collaborative paper for the International Transformative Learning Conference to be held this fall. The paper explores how ethical community is built, focusing particularly on the process of individual transformation that simultaneously prompts the occurrence of transformative community. The community of concern ranges from the fluid followership of a hashtag to the contractual workforce of a corporation. The paper utilizes sustainability-based cases in which financial practices are impugned, and my collaborators, who are from the financial industry, address in this regard the limitations of economic rationality. The other project is the preparation of an intervention, consisting of guided reflections, also for a fall conference. The intervention maps corporate sustainability endeavors that could be deepened and otherwise augmented through appropriate financial commitment and alignment. The map will be introduced and applied also in the redesigned fall course.

Q: Any new trends in Ethics for Sustainability Management and Finance?

A: Several new trends have appeared in this field. The increase of commodification and the rise of financialization are themselves highly modern dimensions of capitalism, and both appear to be globalizing. Financial flows and barriers, and their implications for human poverty and migration are also widening, as is the awakening of communities to corrupt practices through the work of increasingly numerous and adept ethics watchdogs in both civil society and governmental institutions. Social movements around the world call increasingly for integrity in all aspects of human affairs. One could say that ethics, together with the demand for ethics, are trending, and many have implications for economies, particularly those predominated by the financial industry. Yet this trending has old roots: Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), the progenitor of environmentalism, began his famous book, Walden, or Life in the Woods, with a chapter pointedly titled, “Economy.”

Q: Are there any extra details you would like to add about your course that might interest students in enrolling?

A: In this course, students will learn not only the major types of sustainability ethics, including earth justice, environmental justice, biocultural ethics, and others, but also their requirements, and how these can be innovatively met by corporations, civil society organizations, and governments. Financial issues, such as tax havens, trade tariffs, market manipulation and competition, oversight and compensation gaps, abusive and corrupt investment practices, and others that deter sustainability, are illustrated by way of cases. Students will have the opportunity to select a sector of the economy and explore whether it intersects with the financial sector positively or negatively in terms of sustainability ethics.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. Visit the website to learn more.

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