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CSR and Sustainability

The difference between Ethics and Sustainability

I’m speaking later this week at a conference in Prague. The organisers asked me to talk about how companies embed ethics and sustainability. Five hours of thinking and messing about on PowerPoint later, I came up with a few thoughts.

Usually I only use images for talks. But I’ve found with some events (particularly more academic ones) people like some text slides. So I tried to combine the two in the presentation below, which I will give on Thursday this week at Prague College.

Any thoughts before I do so from readers on what I may have missed are always appreciated. Here’s the presentation below:

Embedding Ethics and Sustainability in Business and the Differences Between The Two

A presentation on the differences between business ethics and sustainability, how companies approach the issues, some of the methods of doing so, and possible results and impacts on stakeholders and corporate performance


  1. Andrew Kluth

    Dear Toby,
    Interesting and thought provoking presentation. I've not had time to look at it in detail but one point on slide 16 stood out for me. The comment on 'the way we do things' is not necessarily a statement of ethics. It is a matter of fact statement of how things are done and I have seen that phrase used in companies which have had reputations for questionable ways of working.
    The presentation needs to clarify whether ethics is an approach or a standard. If the former, phrases such as 'the way we work' may be ethical on the basis that they set an expectation that people in the organisation will confirm to some defined process. If the latter, there is at least a reasonable expectation that there is some minimum level of acceptable behaviour that is acceptable.
    An interesting question the presentation raises is whether an ethical company is indeed 'more sustainable in the modern sense' as you note in slide 18. A legal firm, for example, could claim to be ethical without having any real sustainability plan in place, and it would be difficult to say that ethics and sustainability are linked there.

  2. Thanks Andrew, much food for thought here. Part of the reason I pre publish presentations is for helpful feedback like this, so many thanks. What I meant with the "that's just the way we do things around here" line is that the companies often seen to be some of the most ethical have a strong culture of expectation of how people should behave (without always codifying it). But you are completely right. Enron had a strong corporate culture of 'innovation' and good (at the time/in their context) CSR policies. One could argue they had a culture of "this is the way we do things around here" and that led to disaster. One could make the same case for safety culture at BP or the previous 'fast growth' culture at Toyota. I would argue that ethics should be an approach not a standard. But in some cultures (particularly the US) ethics gets lumped in with compliance and ends up being codified. I don't think that's the right way myself. That approach reminds me the idea that companies can be certified as 'good'. Highly problematic…

  3. I've updated the presentation now with an extra slide to clarify my thinking. Thanks again Andrew!