Sustainable Ethics vs. Frontier Ethics
As a business owner, you likely take environmental considerations seriously, whether due to a sense of personal responsibility or public relations concerns. For a long time, environmental issues were a low priority for businesses, and many companies adhered to a set of ethics that focused on profitability over sustainability.
Frontier ethics refers to a set of principles that places corporate profit above environmental impact. In the past, business owners who sought to dominate their industries often showed little concern for environmental impact. For example, natural resources seemed inexhaustible and pollution relatively harmless, so companies rarely devoted time or effort to recycling, conservation or clean energy.
As the study of environmental change progressed, people began to recognize that natural resources are limited and that pollution and global warming are public health concerns. Instead of focusing on profitability at any cost, some companies began to take responsibility for their practices. Recycling, conservation, clean energy and sustainable practices became higher priorities. Taken together, these new priorities represent a shift from frontier ethics to sustainable ethics, or the theory that we must cooperate with, rather than exploit, nature.
Suppose a paper manufacturer wants to lower its prices. It might decide to reduce overhead costs by buying lower-priced raw materials from a timber company. If the paper manufacturer adheres to frontier ethics, it will not research how the timber company can offer such low prices. Instead, the major deciding factor is price, because the paper manufacturer cares most about immediate profit.
If the paper manufacturer instead adheres to sustainable ethics, its decision becomes more difficult. Not only does the company want to make a short-term profit, it also wants to preserve its potential to make profits in the future. The paper company recognizes that it can’t support any timber companies that use unsustainable practices, such as cutting down forests without planting new trees, because sooner or later the timber industry as a whole will fail as trees disappear. The paper manufacturer recognizes that it has a vested interest in supporting sustainable practices, even if negative outcomes exist only in the distant future. In addition, the leaders at the paper manufacturer might feel a moral obligation to preserve natural resources for future generations.