Business ethics and the value of nature

Most people are familiar with the Hippocratic Oath as a do-no-harm pledge for doctors and physicians, but not many will have heard of the MBA Oath. It is the do-no-harm oath for graduating MBA students and the world’s most famous school of business, Harvard business school, adopted it in 2009.

Some of the promises made by students who take the oath include, “refrain from corruption, unfair competition, or business practices harmful to society”, “protect the human rights and dignity of all people affected by my enterprise”, “protect the right of future generations to advance their standard of living and enjoy a heathy planet”.

Is this just mere lip service or is something more substantial happening here? I think we are on the cusp of a revolution. The environmental-social disconnect model of the big corporate is dying.

On RadioNZ yesterday, Kim Hill interviewed Pavan Sukhdev. Sukhdev is a former international banker gone green. He now helps corporations and governments to put a cost to the environmental impact of their operations. He argues that we do not recognize the value of nature’s goods and services which although they come free are still valuable, particularly to the poor. He thinks that corporations have been “free-lunching” off cheap natural resources. If we paid for the true value of these resources, then we’d be more careful about waste. The first step, he argues, is to put a value on nature. For more information about Sukhdev and what he’s arguing for, see his TED talk, Put a value on nature!

Kim Hill asked him whether it’s all just greenwash – a marketing ploy to make it look like big corporates care about nature. He acknowledges the existence of greenwash but adds that this is part of the evolution of the company, which starts with denial of environmental impacts and progresses to reluctant acceptance and then onto greenwash before finally reaching actual action. Actual action starts with placing a value on environmental degradation and costing it up in the balance sheet. This is exactly what the shoe company, Puma, has done.


In 2011, Puma published its first ever Environmental Profit & Loss Account. The executive chairman at the time, Jochen Zeitz (who no longer works for Puma) said, “A new business paradigm is necessary and a transformation of corporate reporting will be central to this – one that works WITH nature and not AGAINST it.”

Other business leaders are pushing for change too. Entrepreneur Richard Branson has joined with other business leaders, including Jochen Zeitz, to launch a new not-for-profit organisation that puts people and the planet alongside profit. It’s called the B Team – People, Planet, Profit.

Australian economist Harry Clarke attaches intrinsic value to natural environments. He says, “We should live well in landscapes where nature has a role in our lives – it is not simply a “resource” intended to be used as a factor of production or a consumer good.” And I agree with him.


  1. Rachel,

    A timely and thought-provoking post.

    The major problem I have with these ‘natural capitalism’ or ‘corporate environmental’ practices is that they promote the commodification of nature. The argument in favour of these ‘reforms’ is that if we don’t do this they will be trashed, as humans do not value anything that doesn’t have a price. This however seems to assume humans are inherently economic beings.There are other social goods and values in addition to the market world, such as a concern for our families and communities, in doing ‘good’ not for money but for the betterment of society, a belief in the value of beauty and aesthetics. I would also argue that there is a ‘green’ order of worth which is different from the market commodification of natural capitalism – our belief in the innate worth of the biosphere of which we are an innate part and which predates our market fetishism.

    The danger of embracing this utilitarian calculus is that we further lose sight of our dependence upon nature and consider the natural world as just another commodity we can buy and sell. Added to this, as I’ve posted elsewhere, it encourages a corporate capitalist imaginary in which the answer to the climate crisis (caused by rampant consumer capitalism) – is more capitalism! In a recent paper we’ve labelled this a process of ‘creative self-destruction’ in which neo-liberal advocates look for ever more ingenious ways to consume nature:


    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Chris. It rather oddly went to my spam folder and I’ve only just seen it!

      I understand where you’re coming from and am curious to know how you might view real sustainability when you come to a conclusion on this one. What are your thoughts on the “people, planet, profits” idea dreamt up by Richard Branson. Do you think it has some merit?

      I’ll keep an eye on your blog.

  2. I don’t know why things have to possess an economic value, can’t we simply value nature for what it is. The governments are doing similar things over here in the UK, whereby everything has to have an economic value.

    1. I agree with you Tony. Nature has so much value in its own right but because we get it for free, it is considered worthless from an economic perspective.

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