Journal of Global Citizenship & Equity Education, Vol 2, No 2 (2012)

Moral and Ethical Foundations for Sustainability: A Multi-disciplinary Approach

Journal of Global Citizenship & Equity Education
Volume 2 Number 2 2012

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Moral and Ethical Foundations for Sustainability: A Multi-disciplinary Approach

Basil Chen, CMA, MBA

Professor, School of Business
Centennial College

Keywords: Sustainability; Sustainability Leadership; Virtue; Virtuousness; Virtue Ethics; Morality; Human Flourishing; Strategic Management; Ecological Economists; Neoclassical Economists; Systems Thinking

ABSTRACT: The purpose of this paper is to accomplish two objectives: (1) review and flesh out in detail the philosophical, theoretical, and pragmatic issues underlying differing perspectives on sustainability and offer up an integrated sustainability framework; (2) consolidate and utilize the findings from the literature review to shed theoretical and practical insights into the foundation of sustainability leadership. This paper takes an integrative approach of weaving and stitching together theories from the field of philosophy, ecology, social psychology, sociobiology, anthropology, economics, and strategic management to provide an integrated view of sustainability and sustainability leadership. Finally, the paper will cogently argue that morality, virtuousness, and character serve as building blocks for sustainability leadership and in so doing offer up a series of six propositions about the antecedents and outcomes of sustainability and sustainability leadership. The paper concludes with recommendations for future study and research.


According to the United Nations, the world population reached 7 billion on October 31, 2011. This milestone in human history represents both an achievement and a challenge. The paramount challenge of this century is to meet the needs of 7 billion human beings now – and the billions to come – while protecting the intricate balance with nature that sustains life. I include here a direct quote by Peter M. Senge in the foreword for John Ehrenfeld's (2008) book, Sustainability by Design, to help facilitate the direction and tone for this paper:

This simple word, sustainability, has escaped from the clutches of academics and social activists and now shows up in newspapers and political speeches. But what does it mean? […] for Ehrenfeld it is all about "flourishing," not just surviving […] For millennia, societies that have nurtured civilization, east and west, north and south, have honored the timeless quest after transcendent ideals: the good, the true, and the beautiful; to be guided by Great Spirit, the Tao. When such aspirations become replaced by the mindless quest for more, we fall out of alignment with our deepest nature. Is it any wonder that we then fall out of alignment with nature as a whole? Economics is the science of means, the efficient use of resources; it has nothing to say, inherently, about ends. Yet, there is hardly a politician on the planet who does not believe that her or his job security does not hinge on economic growth. (p. xiv)

The economist and philosopher David Korten (2008) suggests that history will look back at this time as either the Great Unraveling or the Great Turning. What is sustainability? John Ehrenfeld defines sustainability as "the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on earth forever" (Ehrenfeld, 2008, p.49). He elaborates further, suggesting that sustainability is an existential problem, not an environmental or social one and accordingly we cannot and will not begin to take care of the world until we become whole ourselves. Ehrenfeld's position on sustainability is more fundamental than the often-cited Brundtlund's definition of sustainable development which involves meeting "the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p. 8). Put another way, the goal of sustainability is to meet the basic needs of all and extend to everyone the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations for a better life, while moderating and renewing the use of finite resources (Shrivastava, 1995). I contend that sustainability requires a holistic approach to its understanding and adoption of strategies that migrate away from the mechanistic, philosophical, and purely economic prescriptions that are prevalent in present day research and practice. The interconnected nature of sustainability calls for borderless strategies – both geographical and institutional.

The landscape of this paper is divided into three major sections. The first section provides different perspectives on sustainability with literature review from different fields, such as philosophy and social science; physical and natural science; economics and strategic management, to capture their respective positions and their contribution to the field of sustainability. At the end of each review, I offer up a proposition to set the stage to argue for an integrated sustainability framework. There are four propositions (P1, P2, P3, P4) in the first section (refer to figure 1). The second section consolidates the findings from the first section and provides an integrated model for sustainability. This model argues that morality and virtue ethics undergird the foundation of sustainability. The third section extends the findings and insights; it explores, and discusses the antecedents for sustainability leadership and offers up two propositions (P5, P6). The six propositions in this paper are summarized in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Summary of Propositions

Figure 1. Summary of Propositions

Perspectives on Sustainability

In this first section, I provide different perspectives of sustainability from different fields; each field defines the complexity of sustainability through their unique lens and proposes their unique response to the challenge of our times. I will review the fields of philosophy and social science, physical and natural science, economics, and strategic management.

Contribution from the field of Philosophy and Social Science

Gomis, Parra, Hoffman, and Mcnulty (2011) define sustainability within the ethics framework; they posit a kind of virtue similar to the Aristotelian notion of "prudence and temperance":

Sustainability refers to a moral way of acting, and ideally habitual, in which the person or group intends to avoid deleterious effects on the environmental, social, and economic domains, and which is consistent with a harmonious relationship with those domains that is conducive to a flourishing life. (Gomis et al., p. 176)

In this section, I explore sustainability through the lens of philosophers and social scientists.

Virtue-based View of Morality

The word ethics comes from the Greek word ethos and ethikos. Toffler (1986) translated ethos as character and ethikos as "the theory of living." He defined ethics as "rules or standards" and moral as "relating to principles of right and wrong." The two words – moral and virtue are intimately related and for the purpose of this paper, I will use them interchangeably. Virtues are skills of social perception and action (Churchland, 1988; Dewey, 1922; McDowell, 1979) that must be acquired and refined over a lifetime. According to social psychologists Haidt and Kesebir (2010) an important feature of virtue-based view is that, it educates children not just by teaching rules but also by shaping children's perceptions, emotions, and intuitions. A second feature of virtue-based view is that it emphasizes practice and habit, rather than knowledge and reasoning.

From an organizational perspective Cameron, Bright, and Caza (2004) summarized the view of numerous scholars' perspectives on virtuousness. Virtuousness is associated with what individuals and organizations aspire to be when they are at their very best. States of virtuousness are uniquely human, and they represent conditions of flourishing, ennoblement, and vitality (Lipman-Blumen & Leavitt, 1999). Virtuousness has been defined in connection with meaningful life purpose (Becker, 1992; Overholster, 1999), the ennoblement of human beings (Eisenberg, 1990), personal flourishing (Nussbaum, 1994; Weiner, 1993), and that which leads to health, happiness, transcendent meaning, and resilience in suffering (Myers, 2000a, 2000b; Ryff & Singer, 1998). It produces "moral muscle," willpower, or stamina in the face of challenges (Baumeister & Exline, 1999, 2000; Emmons, 1999; Seligman, 1999). At the aggregate level, virtuousness has been associated with organizations, communities, and cultures. According to economist Adam Smith (1790/1976) and sociologist George Simmel (1950), it is the basis upon which all societies and economies flourish because virtuousness is synonymous with the internalization of moral rules that produce social harmony (Baumeister & Exline, 1999). Virtuousness in societies provides the integral elements of good citizenship (White, 1980), reciprocity (Simmel, 1950), and stability (Smith, 1790/1976) needed to ensure societal longevity.

Cardinal Virtues

Thomas Aquinas (2005) proposed four primary Christian virtues: justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence. According to Aquinas, justice, the first cardinal virtue, means giving to each person, and other living beings what they deserve (e.g. basic human rights and what is needed to live a full life). Aristotle (2005) also gave the virtue of justice great attention and he talked about two types of justice – general justice that deals mostly with laws and particular justice that deals with fairness. Both Aristotle and Aquinas understood the moral significance of the created world and they counseled humans to consider their duties to it. Within the context of sustainability and sustainability leadership, we need the virtue of justice to help us navigate the ever complex and challenging issue of our time. The virtue of justice requires a genuine and thoughtful response from us: (1) to act justly; (2) to foster just relationships between people and planet earth; (3) to consider the global extinction of endangered species as well as the hundreds of millions of people who lack the environmental resources necessary to live a life of dignity; and (4) foster the kind of character that cares about fairness and equity in the world.

The second cardinal virtue is fortitude, often referred to as courage or bravery. When faced with a challenging situation, fear can dominate and take the place of reason and dissuade one from pursuing what is right. Fortitude is working with fear to do the right thing – perseverance in the face of adversity. The information contained in scientific reports about the state of the world can be truly frightening (e.g., global warming), and can engender a state of paralysis. The virtue of fortitude unfreezes us to move beyond our negative feelings and focus on what kind of person we want to be, what kind of character will help us live out our commitments. Courage can give us the perseverance to struggle for justice in the face of discouragement. Courageous individuals act prudently and "stand immovable in the midst of dangers" (Aquinas, 2005). Fortitude spawns "the quality of mind and spirit that enables one to face up to the ethical challenges firmly and confidently, without flinching or retreating" (Kidder, 2005). As a sustainability leader, Ray Anderson (1998) embodied this virtue – he courageously confessed to being "the plunderer of the earth" in contextualizing his vision for a sustainable world.

The third virtue of temperance speaks to the idea of moderation and the ability to control one's emotions. Aristotle (2005) compares a man who lacks temperance to a stereotypically spoiled child who knows no limits. A temperate person avoids what Aquinas called "concupiscible passion" which is defined as an extreme attachment to pleasure and an extreme aversion to pain (Knight, 2006). The current consumerism society is at odds with this virtue. For example, the United States has the world's highest per capita consumption, and people around the globe have utilized natural resources such as forests, fisheries, and ecosystems to support the western way of life in an unsustainable manner. Many industrial processes employed to create consumer goods generate large quantities of toxic chemicals, and these have a much greater chance of harming disadvantaged communities than wealthy ones. The virtue of temperance is a highly desirable ethic that can be used to moderate consumerism. One relatively simple way to express solidarity with those suffering environmental injustice can be to reduce one's consumption, especially of materials that require the use of toxic chemicals for their production. Temperance is an antidote to greed.

The last virtue is prudence and is often associated with knowledge, insight, and practical wisdom. Aristotle (2005) uses the word phronesis –which describes the ability to find the balance between two extremes and make appropriate decisions by minimizing harm and maximizing the good. He further states that finding the moral sweet spot is a skill that requires learning and knowledge. Many consider prudence as the mother of all virtues as it has a "directive capacity with regard to other virtues. It lights the way and measures the arena for their exercise" (Delaney, 1911) by managing and leading people in the right direction. Without prudence, the practice of fortitude can morph into foolhardiness, temperance may turn into fanaticism, and justice degenerates into weakness. The virtue of prudence entices us to consider making wise judgments in complex tradeoffs in the world of sustainability. This is a critical habit to develop for those seeking a more sustainable world. According to the Brundtland Report, "sustainability means meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs" (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987, p. 8). It always requires a balance between competing needs, and thus making wise choices. This would suggest that we take precautionary action now, and assume the responsibility for environmental protection over time, rather than push problems off on future generations. The Serenity Prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi captures the spirit of prudence:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference

To summarize the cardinal virtues, prudence does what is just, while temperance and fortitude protect prudence from inner and outer threat. Temperance and fortitude seek to make a good person, while it is only the specific aim of justice to make a good person a good citizen (Floyd, 2006). The world-renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs[1] (2011a) in his recent book, The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity, calls on his fellow citizen to restore basic virtues as the foundations of national prosperity. Virtue ethics provide moral orientation and undergird the foundation for sustainability. I conclude the review of the field of philosophy and social science with the first proposition.

Proposition One (P1): Sustainability disposition is positively related (anchored and rooted) to morals and ethics.

Contribution from the field of Physical and Natural Science

Many leading scholars in the fields of physical and natural sciences (Capra, 2002; Senge, 1990; Maturana, 1987; Bertanffy, 1968) champion systems thinking as a moderating factor in today's complex, often overwhelming, and seemingly out-of-control world. Our fragmented, linear, cause-effect, Cartesian approaches to dealing with life and its institutions are not functioning optimally to say the least. Senge (1990) defines systems thinking as a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework that focuses on interrelationships, on patterns of change and not static 'snapshots'. He attributes much of the unhealthiness in the world today to our inability to view the world holistically.

The field of organismic biology during the first half of the century spawned a new way of thinking – 'systems thinking' – in terms of connectedness, relationships, and context (Capra, 2002). Systems thinking represents a fundamental move away from Descartes method of analytic thinking. System thinking is "contextual," which is the opposite of analytic thinking. According to the systems view, the essential properties of an organism, or living systems, are properties of the whole, not found in any individual parts. Simply put, we live in a dynamic, ever changing universe, where no single action occurs in isolation but is inextricably linked, often to many other actions – everything is connected to everything else (Ferdig, 2007).

Associated with the idea of systems thinking is an important characteristics called emergence. Ehrenfeld (2008) asserts that emergent properties are features of complex systems that are recognized by observers standing outside of the systems. Emergence is the result of relationships among the parts, even if we cannot quantify them. In very simple terms, emergence is what we mean when we say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, hydrogen and oxygen in isolation from each other would not result in wetness. Wetness is an emergent characteristic of the mutual interaction of hydrogen and oxygen when combined to produce the molecular form called water. Ehrenfeld (2008) defines sustainability as "the possibility of humans and other life forms flourishing on the planet forever" (p. 49). In this context both flourishing and sustainability are emergent properties of complex living systems. According to Wheatley and Frieze (2008), emergence violates many Western assumptions of how change happens. In nature, change never happens with a top-down, pre-conceived strategic plan, or from the mandate of any single individual or boss. Change begins as local actions spring up simultaneously in many different areas. If these changes remain disconnected, nothing happens beyond each locale. However, when they become connected, local actions can emerge as a powerful system with influence at a more global or comprehensive level. (Global in this instance means a larger scale, not necessarily the entire planet.) These powerful emergent phenomena appear suddenly and surprisingly. Think about how the Berlin Wall suddenly came down, how the Soviet Union ended, how corporate power quickly came to dominate globally. In each case, there were many local actions and decisions, most of which were invisible and unknown to each other, and none of which was powerful enough by itself to create change. However, when these local changes coalesced, new power emerged.

Fritjof Capra[2] (2002) developed a conceptual framework that integrated biological, cognitive and social dimensions of life and allowed for the adoption of a systematic approach to sustainability. He provided some practical illustrations to breathe life into his framework – he discussed the deficiency of the economist's theoretical framework of externalities and recommended ways to counteract their deficiencies. Capra argued that corporate economists treated natural resources – air, land, water as free commodities and for the most part, they subscribed to the "take, make, and waste paradigm". Private profits take precedence over public costs in the general deterioration of the environment and quality of life, at the expense of future generations. The marketplace, which the economist relies on, simply gives the wrong information. There is a lack of feedback, and basic ecological literacy would suggest that such a system is unsustainable. Capra suggests an ecological tax reform to effect positive change. The tax reform would be revenue neutral, shifting the tax burden from income taxes to "eco-taxes." This means that taxes will be added to existing products and services to reflect the true costs. This strategy utilizes the basic economic principle of supply and demand to locate the 'sustainability sweet spot.' The long-term and slow ecological tax reform would gradually drive wasteful and harmful technologies and consumption patterns out of the market. As energy prices go up, with corresponding income tax reductions to offset the increase, people will increasingly switch from cars to other mode of transportation such as bicycles, and public transport. As taxes on petrochemicals and fuel increases, with the corresponding decrease in income taxes, organic farming will become not only the healthiest but also the cheapest means of food production.

Understanding the systems approach to sustainability has far-reaching implications, it will provide the necessary orientation and structure for the design and formulation of sustainable economic and business strategy. I conclude the review from the field of physical and natural science with the second proposition.

Proposition Two (P2): The systemic conception of life, mind, and consciousness transcends disciplinary boundaries and this conception of life positively relates to flourishing and hence sustainability.

Contribution from the field of Economics

The economic perspective or economic way of thinking envisions individuals and institutions making rational decisions by comparing the marginal benefits and marginal costs associated with their actions (McConnell, Brue, Flynn, & Barbeiro, 2010). This perspective implies that individuals must coordinate their wants and desire in a world of finite resources. Most people would agree that we have a responsibility to manage the planet's resources in order to ensure that future generations have access to a good quality of life that is sustainable. Economists John Pezzy (1992) and Eban Goodstein (2008) define this goal more precisely as sustainability (similar to Brundtland's definition): "providing the typical person alive in the future with a standard of living, including both material and environmental welfare, at least as high as that enjoyed by the typical person today".

Neoclassical and Ecological Economics

Conversations about sustainability by economists can be divided into two broad categories (Goodstein, 2008), neoclassical and ecological. Neoclassical[3] economists posit that: (1) created capital can generally substitute for natural capital in production; and (2) technological progress will uncover these substitutes as natural capital becomes scarce. The assumptions imply that "resources are not running out." They believe that market-based economies provide powerful foundations for achieving sustainability – as resource becomes scarce, prices will rise, and innovations will yield high-quality substitutes resulting in lower prices.

Fundamentally, neoclassical economists tend to view nature as highly resilient. Although they see a need for government regulation to control and regulate resource depletion, they are optimistic that as markets spread, living standards will rise and population growth rate will fall, all within the acceptable range of environmental degradation.

In contrast, ecological[4] economists argue that natural and created capitals are complements – that is they are used together in production and have low substitutability. They subscribe to the Malthusian view (Malthus, 1798) and accordingly believe that rapid increases in population coupled with an even faster consumption are putting unsustainable pressure on the earth's natural resource base.

They are technological pessimists and believe in the notion that the earth is "running out of resources." Fundamentally, ecological economists view nature as fragile and while not hostile to the spread of markets, they prefer an expanded role of government in protecting the natural stock. Ecological economics promotes the notion to redesign the economy so that it restores rather than degrades natural systems, accrues rather than depletes natural resources. From the ecological perspective, Paul Hawken (1993) offers a vision of a transformed economy in which business practices mimic natural systems.

Heated debate continues between the two camps, the issue ultimately comes down to the degree of substitution between natural and created capital, and this differs from case to case. That said, there is an important point that both camps agree on and this point of agreement fundamentally affects the sustainability paradigm. Gross domestic product (GDP) is the government measure of the final value of all goods and services produced and consumed in the market annually; it also equals the income earned and spent by consumers (Goodstein, 2008) and it is the most widely used measure to gauge the health of an economy. GDP is a bad measure of sustainability (Goodstein, 2008; Cobb, Halstead, & Rowe, 1995) and on this point both ecological and neoclassical economists agree. They offer different measurement alternatives. GDP has at least four well-known problems. (1) GDP fails to include the value of nonmarket production; (2) GDP fails to subtract the costs of growth; (3) GDP fails to account for the depreciation of the capital used up in production; and (4) GDP reflects the experience of the "average" rather than the "typical" person. Neoclassical economists proposed alternative measures of sustainability such as net national welfare (NNW) (Goodstein, 2008) and genuine progress indicator (GPI) (Cobb, Halstead, & Rowe, 1995). Since ecological economists do not view natural and created capital as substitutes, they reject the NNW approach and instead use physical measures of ecosystem resilience and resource stocks weighted against population and consumption pressure as their measure of sustainability. Setting their differences aside, what is important to note is that the conversation has shifted away from GDP towards a more relevant and comprehensive measure of sustainability – a conversation that engenders flourishing.

Jeffrey Sachs (2011b) was a co-host with Bhutan's Prime Minister, Jigme Thinley, a leader in sustainable development and a great champion of the concept of gross national happiness "GNH". Forty years ago, the kingdom of Bhutan adopted the notion of GNH rather than GNP to measure prosperity. The assembly examined how to achieve happiness in a world that is characterized by rapid urbanization, mass media, global capitalism, and environmental degradation. How can economic life be re-ordered to recreate a sense of community, trust, and environmental sustainability? Here are some of the initial conclusions:

  1. We should not denigrate the value of economic progress.
  2. Relentless pursuit of GNP to the exclusion of other goals is also no path to happiness.
  3. Both individuals and societies achieve happiness through a balanced approach to life.
  4. Global capitalism presents many direct threats to happiness.
  5. To promote happiness, we must identify the many factors other than GNP that can raise or lower society's well-being.

Deep knowledge of economics allows the formulations of more subtle and powerful hypotheses and the development of a richer sustainability strategy – it promotes the operationalization of sustainability (example: the notion of gross national happiness). I conclude the review of the field of economics with the third proposition.

Proposition Three (P3): A Gross National Happiness (GNH) indicator provides for a more accurate measure of social well-being and relates positively to sustainability.

Contribution from the field of Strategic Management

Strategy is fundamental to an organization's success. According to some leading scholars in the field, strategy is:

the determination of the basic and long-term goals and objectives of an enterprise, and the adoption of the courses of action and the allocation of resources necessary to carry out these goals (Chandler, 1962).

the pattern of objectives, purposes or goals, and the major polices and plans for achieving these goals, stated in such a way as to define what business the company is in or should be in or the kind of company it is or should be (Andrews, 1971).

what determines the framework of a firm's business activities and provide guidelines for coordinating activities so that the firm can cope with influence of the changing environment. Strategy articulates the firm's preferred environment and the type of organization it is striving to become (Itami, 1987).

The idea that strategy defines what business the company is in or should be in or the kind of company it is or should be implies that strategic decisions determine the company's psyche, shape its competitive stance, the value it will add to society, and finally determine if it will get on the road to sustainability. Ray Anderson (1998), a corporate sustainability pioneer, spoke directly to this point when he redefined how Interface, the company he founded, will reinvent itself by embedding sustainability at the "genetic" level to achieve competitive advantage, which encompass many new opportunities to achieve superior value through stakeholder value creation. Some business strategists and thought leaders in the field (Hart, 2010; Laszlo & Zhexembageva, 2011) posit that it is indeed possible to focus on both doing good and doing well, and that the time is ripe to unshackle ourselves from the "trade-off myth" (Hart, 2010, p.19).

Hart asserts that business – more than government or civil society – is uniquely equipped at this point in history to lead us toward a sustainable world. He argues that corporations are the only entities in the world today with the technology, resources, capacity, and global reach required. Business strategists like Hart and Laszlo have ceaselessly advocated embedding sustainability into the core business strategy. To illustrate their position that business will lead the sustainability journey, consider the case of Wal-Mart. In 2005, Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott made a startling announcement broadcast to all 1.6 million employees and communicated to some 60,000 suppliers that Wal-Mart is initiating a far-reaching "business sustainability strategy" (Plambeck & Denend, 2008). Wal-Mart selected three goals as part of their sustainability vision: 1) to be supplied 100 percent by renewable energy; 2) to create zero waste; and 3) to sell products that sustain the environment. The ripple effect of Wal-Mart's ambitious goals would be astounding when it achieves its sustainability vision.

However, some critics argue that corporations get on the sustainability "bandwagon" solely as a 'business case' – that is in terms of profitability and strategic advantage. For example, in a Time Magazine article, "GE's Green Awakening," it is stated that, "GE has a history of opposing environmental regulations that don't suit the firm". And yet, according to the article, the company's new CEO, Jeff Immelt, is pushing the company in areas associated with sustainability. "Is Immelt responding to a guilty corporate conscience?" the article asks. "No. He's seizing a blossoming opportunity: Green is where the green is" (Fonda, 2005). I take the position that by allowing strategic management as a discipline to blossom, it will facilitate the operationalization of sustainability. Both Hart (2010) and Laszlo & Zhexembayeva (2011) proposed fresh ideas and models on parallel tracks to actualize the notion of "doing good and doing well without trade-offs". Hart proposed The Sustainable Value Portfolio[5] and Laszlo proposed and developed the idea of Embedded Sustainability[6]. I conclude the review of the field of strategic management with the fourth proposition.

Proposition Four (P4): Strategic management fosters the germination and emergence of business creativity – "it is possible to do good and do well" and this positively relates to sustainability.

The following section will make a compelling argument that all these different fields provide "grist for the sustainability mill" that eventually leads to flourishing – a true convergence.

Integrated Sustainability Model

All four perspectives on sustainability approach the subject through their respective lenses, with pros and cons associated with each perspective, but when viewed as an integrated whole, we get an integrated sustainability framework (see Figure 2). I posit that morality and virtue ethics undergird the sustainability "pyramid," while systems thinking, economics, and strategic management operationalize sustainability. All the different fields provide "grist for the sustainability mill" that eventually leads to flourishing – a true convergence.

Morality and virtue ethics provide direction and suggest what is appropriate, legitimate, and feasible for the organization to focus on. They connect individuals and organizations to what is valuable and enduring. The integrative nature of systems thinking provides a spawning ground for the emergence of creativity. In the field of economics, seminal thinkers like David Ricardo (1817) formulated the notion of economic rents that have served society well. The field of strategic management leveraged Ricardo's work and developed it into the resource-based view (RBV) of the firm. RBV theory maintains and explains how firms' resources and capabilities are sources of sustained competitive advantage. According to the RBV theory, resources and capabilities are bundles of tangible and intangible assets, including a firm's management and organizational skills, and knowledge it controls that can be used to help choose and implement strategies (Barney, 1991). As mentioned earlier, both Hart (2010) and Laszlo & Zhexembayeva (2011) proposed fresh ideas and models on parallel tracks to actualize the notion of "doing good and doing well without trade-offs." To summarize, morals and virtues provide the fuel while the field of systems thinking, economics, and strategic management operationalizes sustainability.

Figure 2. Integrated Sustainability Framework

Figure 1. Summary of Propositions

With an integrated model of sustainability in place the next section addresses sustainability leadership – are there any 'special' requirements to lead in this domain?

Implications for Sustainability Leadership

Based on the integrated model, sustainability leadership will need to extend the capabilities and attributes associated with traditional leadership as espoused under established leadership theories such as ethical leadership, transformational leadership, and authentic leadership. Sustainability leadership endeavors to acquire and adopt unique approaches to today's complex leadership challenge. Ferdig (2007) has a unique perspective and she defines sustainability leadership as:

Anyone who takes responsibility for understanding and acting upon complex sustainability challenges qualifies as a 'sustainability leader' whether or not they hold formal leadership position or acknowledged political and social-economic influence. Sustainability leaders take conscious actions, individually and collectively, leading to outcomes that nurture, support, and sustain healthy economic, environmental, and social systems. (p. 32)

Ferdig (2007) went a step further and offer up her position on sustainability by contributing the following to sustainability leadership literature:

  1. Sustainability leaders engender an environment for people to come together and generate their own answers. They recognize that the experience of change itself, and the dissonance it creates, fuels new thinking, discoveries and innovations that can revitalize organizations, communities, and ultimately the earth. (Ferdig & Ludema, 2005)
  2. Sustainability leaders subscribe to the holistic view of life. This can result in win/win partnerships and joint strategies that maximize the use of resources needed to initiate far-reaching solutions.
  3. Sustainability leaders manifest the virtue of humility – they put away ego-driven certainty of 'right' answers. Instead of avoiding or 'managing' conflict, they become adept at exploring differences with people in ways that enhance the potential of identifying, understanding, and confronting challenges. (Shaw, 2002)

Portugal and Yukl (1994) proposed three distinct behaviors critical for environmental leaders: (1) articulating an inspired vision with environmental components; (2) raising awareness of environmental issues to change perceptions; and (3) taking symbolic actions to demonstrate personal commitment. They contend successful environmental leadership is a dynamic process and it requires influencing, consensus building, and coalition forming with internal and external stakeholders.

Cox (2005) conducted an in-depth study of for-profit organizations pursuing sustainability. These were organizations that subscribed to the notion that it was possible to focus on both doing well and doing good. Based on his research findings, he re-conceptualized leadership in the context of living organizations, which he called organic leadership:

Organic leadership is an array of dynamic, open, complex relational and dialogic process focused on facilitating the emergence of high performance environments that human experience around corporate responsibility, sustainability, and social justice principle within the business context. These processes of relating are ubiquitous and similar to the organizing processes found in all living systems. The essence of organic leadership is purpose, relationships, conversation, and self-organization. (p. 185)

Cox (2005) listed five core commitments or competencies that sustainability leaders exhibited and offered some practical insights. The five commitments include: (1) working from a deep sense of personal purpose; (2) redefining the purpose of business; (3) working with a broad range of stakeholders; (4) engaging in transformational interactions; and (5) embracing emergent organizations (p. 120). Although Ferdig (2007), Portugal and Yukl (1994), and Cox (2005) radically expanded the contribution to sustainability leadership literature, in today's challenging business environment the attributes and applications associated with traditional leadership theories are more critical than ever.

Sustainability Leadership and Virtue Ethics Connections

Leadership is deeply rooted in virtue, and leaders being key organizational members have extensive influence and power (Barling et al., 2010). Bass and Steidlmeier (1999) posit that leadership is a moral compass, and that a leader's ethical values and actions are pillars of leadership. Ethical leaders exert positive, "virtuous influence" on followers through role modeling and relationship building and contribute to a win-win situation for both business and employees (Neubert et al., 2009). Leadership is about character and as Dr. Martin Luther King said, "I dream of an America in which man would be judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character". What is the "content of character?" It is morals and virtues, and more precisely, the set of classical human virtues – courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom, and transcendence. Virtues serve as foundations and building blocks of leadership. Leadership character is forged through the cultivation of virtue and one's growth as a leader is proportionate to one's growth in virtue. Major leadership theory such as ethical, transformational, authentic, and sustainability leadership have clear moral dimensions with strong virtuous undertones.

Virtuousness is associated with moral goodness and is conducive to eudaimonia, the happiness associated with human flourishing. It represents what is good, right, and worthy of cultivation (McCullough & Snyder, 2000; Peterson, 2003). Virtuousness is most closely associated with goods of first intent or that which is inherently good, such as love, wisdom, and fulfillment. Goods of second intent include that which is good for the sake of obtaining something else, such as profit, prestige, or power. People never tire of or become satiated with goods of first intent, but that is not true of goods of second intent. The moral component of virtuousness is characterized by goods of first intent, is desired for its own sake, and it is characteristic of organizations as well as individuals (Peterson & Park, 2003). These goods are associated with anything that contributes to the flourishing of human beings and their moral character (Ryff & Singer, 1998). The virtue of sustainability is one that is conducive to creating the happiness that follows from a world in balance, which is essential to human flourishing (Gomis, Parra, Hoffman, & Mcnulty, 2011).

Proposition Five (P5): Sustainability leaders are anchored in virtue ethics and do not rely on rule-based ethics; they affirm that the essence of ethics is more than just rules – rules are subservient to virtue. The heart of a sustainability leader is imbued with virtue causing it to flourish.

Cross cultural Convergence of Virtues

Dahlsgaard, Peterson, and Seligman (2005) classified positive traits across culture by examining philosophical and religious traditions in China (Confucianism and Taoism), South Asia (Buddhism and Hinduism), and the West (Athenian philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The authors found that six core virtues recurred in these writings: courage, justice, humanity, temperance, wisdom, and transcendence converged across time, place, and intellectual tradition. This convergence suggests a non-arbitrary foundation or the classification for human strengths and virtues and it is ubiquitous. They summarized their key findings in Table 1.

Table 1: Core Virtue Model of Dahlsgaard et al.

Core Virtues




Emotional strengths that involve the exercise of will to accomplish goals in the face of opposition, external or internal; examples include bravery, perseverance, and authenticity (honesty)


Civic strengths that underlie healthy community life; examples include fairness, leadership, and citizenship or team work


Interpersonal strengths that involve "tending and befriending" others (Taylor et al., 2000); examples include love and kindness


Strengths that protect against excess; examples include forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-control


Cognitive strengths that entail the acquisition and the use of knowledge; examples include creativity, curiosity, judgment, and perspective (providing counsel to others)


Strengths that forge connections to the larger universe and thereby provide meaning: examples include gratitude, hope, and spirituality

Dahlsgaard et. al (2005, p. 205)

Proposition Six (P6): There are ubiquitous virtues and values that converge across time, place, and intellectual traditions. Ubiquitous virtues undergird sustainability leadership.

To reinforce the forgoing argument that morality and virtue ethics underpins sustainability leadership, I mapped the findings and recommendations from Ferdig, Portugal and Yukl, and Cox against the Core Virtue Model of Dahlsgaard et al. – there is a profound fit (see Table 2).

Table 2: Virtue Ethics as Foundations

 Mapping Cox; Ferdig; Portugal & Yukl against Dahlsgaard's Core Virtues Model






Embracing emergent organization (5)




Working with a broad range of stakeholders (3)




Working with a broad range of stakeholders (3)

Engender an environment for people to come together and generate their own answers (1)

Take symbolic actions to demonstrate personal commitment (3)





Sustainability leaders manifest the virtue of humility (3)



Redefining the purpose of business (2)


Raising awareness of environmental issues to change perceptions (2)


Working with a deep sense of purpose (1)

Transformational interaction (4)

Sustainability leader subscribes to the holistic view of life (2)

Articulating an inspired vision with environmental components (1)


The impetus of this paper was to study and assess the sustainability landscape to help weave the basic fabric for sustainability and sustainability leadership and in so doing, align and position ourselves with the most challenging issue in human history. My findings suggest that virtue and morality undergirds the foundations of sustainability and sustainability leadership; whilst the field of systems thinking, economics, and strategic management operationalize sustainability. The time is now for humans to embrace the challenges and opportunities ahead so that life on earth can continue to flourish. That said more research is required to draw conclusions that are more definitive to the six propositions posited. The propositions need to be further developed, refined, and tested in the crucible of daily living – from the boardroom to the lunchroom. For example, the strength and directionality of the relationships between Gross National Happiness (GNH) and sustainability would need further investigation. The measurement of virtues within the sustainability context would require attention and a robust set of indicators of virtuousness in organizations will be required to extend this work. Future work in this arena must continue to examine virtuousness from the individual, organizational, and societal perspectives. In light of the current environment where the Cartesian view and cynicism still dominates, it is incumbent on scholars in organizational studies to extend their reach into areas that represent highest human flourishing.


1 Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

2 Fritjof Capra is the bestselling author of The Tao of Physics, The Web of Life, The Hidden Connections, The Science of Leonardo, and other books. A physicist best known for his work in systems thinking, Capra is also cofounder and chair of the board of the Center for Ecoliteracy.

3 The Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (AERE) – housed in a think tank in Washington, DC, called Resources for the Future (RFF), represent the Neoclassical.

4 The International Society of Ecological Economics represents ecological group; browse ISEE at

5 The concept of The Sustainable Value Portfolio can be found in Stuart Hart's book, Capitalism at the Crossroad.

6 The concept of Embedded Sustainability can be found in Chris Laszlo & N. Zhexembayeva's book, Embedded Sustainability the Next Big Competitive Advantage.


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1 Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

2 Fritjof Capra is the bestselling author of The Tao of Physics, The Web of Life, The Hidden Connections, The Science of Leonardo, and other books. A physicist best known for his work in systems thinking, Capra is also cofounder and chair of the board of the Center for Ecoliteracy.

3 The Association of Environmental and Resource Economists (AERE) – housed in a think tank in Washington, DC, called Resources for the Future (RFF), represent the Neoclassical.

4 The International Society of Ecological Economics represents ecological group; browse ISEE at

5 The concept of The Sustainable Value Portfolio can be found in Stuart Hart's book, Capitalism at the Crossroad.

6 The concept of Embedded Sustainability can be found in Chris Laszlo & N. Zhexembayeva's book, Embedded Sustainability the Next Big Competitive Advantage.

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