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.