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Can Nature Enhance Ethical Decision-Making in Business? Insights from John Hausdoerffer, Part 2

Ethical decision-making in business - a conversation with environmental ethicist John Hausdoerffer

Environmental philosopher John Hausdoerffer talks ethical decision-making in business with Alphy, maker of Reflect AI

When John Hausdoerffer tells you to “take a hike,” it’s not a pejorative. As the environmental philosopher sees it, a brush with nature can be a competitive advantage in today's business environment. In our latest in an occasional series of interviews with leading ethicists — meant to spur discussion about where ethical behavior begins and how to encourage more of it in the workplace — Alphy talked with Hausdoerffer, a professor at Western Colorado University who thinks, teaches and writes about the ethics of human behavior and its effect on the planet. This is the second of a two-part Q&A with the founding dean of the Clark Family School of Environment & Sustainability, director of the university’s Master in Environmental Management program, and author of three books. Hausdoerffer offers an eye-opening perspective on how forging deeper connections with nature can enhance ethical decision-making in business and ethical workplace cultures. 

So much of our work is remote now. We don’t see people’s reactions to us, so we may not end up caring enough about how they feel about an email we sent.

It's like being behind a windshield when you’re driving in a car, where you feel like you can flip someone off from inside a car, you can honk at them, and our whole society's like that right now. The whole increase in road rage, I think, is that isolationism keeps us from having to really connect with and care for each other. And so that translates into the planet pretty quickly.


How do environmental ethics intersect with ethical business practices, if at all?


With ethical business practices, you have to balance those three e's of economy, equity and ecology, or the three p's of person, planet, profit and prosperity. Amory Lovins [chair of the Rocky Mountain Institute] wrote a book called Natural Capitalism. The first industrial revolution was about efficiency of labor and he argues the second industrial revolution is going to have to be about efficiency of resources. Companies that generate or achieve that efficiency of resource use are going to be the ones that compete with the others in the 21st century. 

Companies that practice sustainability have happier workers who stay longer and stay committed to the company. And so that's obviously a healthy business practice, right? It’s about not having to retrain people, having that institutional memory in your company. When people are happy in their jobs, workers are treated well, in a company that's committed to environmental ethics, it's not just saving money through efficiencies, it's investing spiritually. 


Some people view that softer stuff as nonsense.  


Efficient use of resources puts you less at the whims of the global economy or less at the whims of OPEC making decisions on the price of a barrel of oil. There are just so many fluctuations out there in terms of raw material value. Through developing those efficiencies, there's more control.


What are some simple ways that workplaces could encourage employees to make more ethical choices every day? 

Companies could be giving people hours to volunteer and or recreate in nature. Look at New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, Colorado. They give people sabbaticals to follow their folly. As long as they do something that sort of explores the world in a new way and takes a new risk of their life, they can get a paid sabbatical after their 10th and 20th year on the job. 

You can also have competitions for riding your bike to work, taking public transportation to work, or carpooling, leading to your division getting a free meal at a restaurant together, or whatever it is that people want these days. A reward in a spirit of fun, joyful competition.

What are the qualities of an ethical leader? 

Two ears, one mouth. Twice as much listening as speaking. Collaborative vision and transparency in how the decision is made. As a leader, I want diversity of voices, openness to critical feedback, but confidence that I've listened, I've collaborated, and moving forward to say, “This is what we're trying, then we'll reevaluate together.” There has to be that level of confident leadership in the mix. Otherwise an organization gets petrified by process, run by a leader who has process-itis, who’s so into transparency, so into collaboration, that nothing gets done.


Can connecting with nature influence the way we communicate and behave in the workplace?


When in nature, we know the chemicals released to the brain are antidepressants. When in nature, walking through the woods in the fall, we know that decaying leaves actually release an antidepressant chemical. We also know that intellectual performance improves with a connection to nature, which raises a lot of hard racial questions, like, who has that connection with nature, and therefore who benefits from that inner serenity, and therefore, who performs better? 

 What can businesses learn from nature to improve communication and decision-making?


There's a lot of cool stuff happening around biomimicry, and it's not just engineers jumping on it — businesses are jumping on it, too. Interface Carpet company was inspired by a retreat in the woods where they saw that the patterns of leaves on the forest floor didn't have to be one perfect color. And then they figured out that their carpet squares could all be slightly different colors, and that customers don’t have to throw away a whole carpet when you just wear it out on one strip where you walk — you just replace those squares, and it can still look beautiful. That was inspired by a forest floor. There's an article by Margot Farnsworth in my book, Wildness, about that moment with Interface carpet.

There's an architect named William McDonough who wrote a book called Cradle to Cradle, and he helped Ford develop a [auto manufacturing] plant. It has all the functions of a tree. It generates more energy than it uses because of the renewable energy that is invested in it. It cleanses the water going out of this factory in Dearborn, Michigan, so it is cleaner than the water coming in because they have this wetland around it. On the living roof, the workers on their lunch breaks and stuff have counted 300 different bird species. So it's providing habitat, it's cooling, it's cleansing water. It's generating energy. It's all the functions of a tree. And then he says, imagine buildings like trees, cities like forests. So, you know, nature function can really inspire how we think about design.

I also would argue that what makes an ecological system more resilient is when there's diversity in it, because then it can adapt to shock, rather than a monoculture. And I think you find DEI is not just about feeling good. It makes companies more resilient to have more backgrounds, more points of view on a project, on a mission, on an endeavor, on a culture. I think we see that in ecosystems, the more diverse, the more resilient.


You could also link it to innovation and adaptation.  Resilience needs adaptation from a resilient set of functions. You look at how Kodak did not adapt to cell phone cameras. 


The bottom line for me is that ethics is about living the good life, but pushing beyond good. Being defined by good for me or good for my company. There are larger, intersecting, ever-expanding spheres of good beyond good for me, beyond good for my company. That'd be my thesis for what ethics does.

Three takeaways:

  1. Nature's Business Value: Connecting with nature can enhance ethical decision-making and improve workplace culture.

  2. Sustainable Practices: Ethical business integrates economy, equity, and ecology, leading to competitive advantages and employee satisfaction.

  3. Promoting Ethics: Businesses can encourage ethical behavior through sabbaticals and rewards for ethical behaviors like eco-friendly commuting, blending fun with responsibility to inspire positive actions.


Carolyne Zinko is the editorial director and AI editor of Alphy.

Reflect AI by Alphy is an AI communication compliance solution that detects and flags language that is harmful, unlawful, and unethical in digital communication. Alphy was founded to reduce the risk of litigation from harmful and discriminatory communication while helping employees communicate more effectively.


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