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A Code of Ethics for Sustainability Professionals
Alan AtKisson, 2 Nov 07
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In January 2007, I stood in front of the King of Sweden and an assembled group of 75 international leaders in sustainability and made the following commitment: to initiate the development of an international Code of Ethics for professionals working in the field of sustainable development.

I spoke -- convincingly enough, it seemed, based on the positive reaction I received -- about the need for such a code, given the rapid growth in the field, and the essentially ethical nature of the work. I noted that doctors, journalists, even public relations professionals have codes of ethics -- but not we who ply our trade promoting sustainable solutions and sustainable behavior.

At that event, I promised to produce a completed draft Code early in 2008, when a follow-up meeting with the Kind was envisaged to occur.

One thing led to another, and I got very busy ... and now it is November. One does not like to disappoint a King.

So I developed a working draft -- or rather, a not-yet-working draft, since nobody but myself has worked with it yet. It is a set of ten principles that covers the various notes I made, and the comments I received, when I first proposed this initiative and started to organize it.

I'll be watching the comments on Worldchanging, as well as seeking comments actively from practitioners and colleagues.

Who are "sustainability professionals"? A simple answer would be people who have the words "sustainable" or "sustainable development" written into their job descriptions or titles; by that measure, I have been a sustainability professional for nineteen years.

Broaden the definition and my years running a peace program and writing songs about nuclear weapons and the like stretch that number. It is like defining a professional musician or athlete: if someone pays you "do sustainability" in some way, then you are a pro. I would guess that a sizeable percentage of Worldchanging readers fit that description.

By the way, some dedicated folks in Oregon have started a new "International Society of Sustainability Professionals", or ISSP. Strangely enough, a few colleagues and I used exactly the same name for a simulated organization in a training workshop years ago. We just dreamed it up for training purposes; these folks in Oregon came up with it independently. Yet more proof that dreams can come true.

Here's the draft; I look forward to the reactions of Worldchanging readers.


A DRAFT Professional Code of Ethics
for Sustainability Professionals

FIRST WORKING DRAFT - Dated 1 November 2007

1. Walk your talk.
We cannot promote change in others if we are not striving to exemplify that change in our own personal and professional lives.

2. Keep up to date.
As professionals, we have a responsibility to keep learning and constantly informing ourselves about the emerging science and practice of sustainability -- both what is happening to our world, and what can be done about it.

3. Tell the truth about the trends, as you see it.
In a world of great media noise and confusion, where sustainability issues and global concerns must compete for attention, we have a responsibility to our clients to keep them informed. Be clear to your clients about what you believe to be the most important trends affecting our world and their future, and why.

4. Share information, and credit, with other professionals.
While client confidentiality must always be respected, it slows down progress in the field and change for sustainability if we hoard information regarding new ideas, the development of new methods, and relevant activity in the market. It also damages overall progress when we use the work of other people without appropriate permission or citation.

5. Prioritize cooperation over competition, and impact over income.
In the community of sustainability practice, seek first for opportunities to work together with others and build on complementary strengths, rather than to compete for primacy; and weigh the chance to make change as more important than making money.

6. Make referrals to other professionals whenever appropriate.
If someone else, or a different methodology, would be significantly more effective at meeting a specific client's needs than what you can offer, make the client aware of that option.

7. Tithe to the volunteers.
Donate some fraction of your revenues to voluntary or non-profit initiatives that are advancing the practice of sustainability.

8. Explain your ethical choices.
Be transparent about the criteria you use for structuring your practice and for choosing your professional engagements.

9. Consider the systemic impacts of your advice and actions.
Sustainability professionals have a special obligation to think systemically, and to take into account the potential impacts of what they recommend or do, including impacts beyond the boundaries of the system they are operating in.

10. Seek to do no harm.
In working with clients and promoting change, seek to avoid actions and interventions that may cause lasting damage to people, nature, community, and organizational health.

Alan AtKisson, a long-time Worldhanging contributor, is President of AtKisson Group, an international sustainability consultancy founded in 1992, and current Executive Director of Earth Charter International, the secretariat supporting the Earth Charter Initiative. He also serves in a volunteer capacity as President of the International Network of Resource Information Centers, also known as the Balaton Group, a global network of sustainability researchers and practitioners founded in 1982 by Dennis Meadows and Donella Meadows. WorldChanging founder Alex Steffen is a member of the Balaton Group. Alan is coordinating the development of this Code of Ethics as a volunteer activity, reaching to a variety of professional networks and organizations.

Image credit: flickr/Donnaphoto

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Comments

I love it! It's sensible, simple and humane. Thanks for tackling this!


Posted by: Jon Stahl on 2 Nov 07

Alan, this reminds me tangentially of the Sustainability "Graduation Pledge" now being promoted for college graduates -- see, for example, http://sustainability.mit.edu/Pledge.

"I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organization for which I work."


Posted by: Kim on 3 Nov 07

Ethics, Codes, Principles and Practices. A mindset is a terrible thing to change. With all due respect, the list seems rather passive. It feels related to corporate structure or social interaction.

"Sustainability" and "sustainable" to begin are co opted words I avoid. The subjective use enlists the readers definition and needs more definitive explanation. John Todd has a principles list. Biomimicry has a list. I think David Holmgrens Permaculture Principles come closest to what we need to think about as world designers. All have good explanations on the web..

The 12 Permaculture Principles
1. Observe & Interact
2. Catch & Store Energy
3. Obtain a Yield
4. Apply Self-regulation & Accept Feedback
5. Use & Value Renewable Resources and Services
6. Produce No Waste
7. Design From Patterns to Details
8. Integrate Rather Than Segregate
9. Use Small and Slow Solutions
10. Use and Value Diversity
11. Use Edges and Value the Marginal
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change

Accountability and measurable outcomes must always be part of ethical standards.

Dan Halsey
Southwoods, Prior Lake, Minnesota, USA


Posted by: Daniel Halsey on 3 Nov 07

Great idea, and a great draft. I'm doing my ethics/professionalism class in an engineering programme, and there are a lot of similarities between sustainability professionals and professional engineers. Both (should) have as their top priority the public's safety and welfare, followed (in order) by the client, and finally personal interest. Many of your points (such as staying up to date with the state of the art) are included in engineering codes of ethics.

One constructive criticism I'd like to make is that your draft should be made a little 'tighter'. In some jurisdictions, codes of ethics are enforceable by law. As an example, see:

http://www.oiq.qc.ca/pdf/TheCodeofEthicsofEngineers.pdf

A small point on point 4, "While client confidentiality must always be respected, it slows down progress...": The "it" seems at first reading to imply that client confidentiality slows down progress, making the whole sentence seem contradictory. A bit of word swapping could make that clearer.

Good luck!


Posted by: John on 3 Nov 07

Alan,

If only all professional groups (particularly those with the greatest potential to impact on achieving and implementing sustainability recommendations) took their responsibility as seriously, we might be further along the path.

Great start - in fact - much more than a start - it certainly fits with my operational ethics. With your permission I will make the Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand aware of this as well - they have a Certified Environmental Professional Program which encompasses sustainability. This should definitely be part of their mandate.


Posted by: Michael O'Brien on 3 Nov 07

Thanks for this, Alan. A noble and necessary effort.

A suggestion for expanding on #1 a bit:

I will honestly evaluate the tangible effects of my work, and compare them to the ecological footprint I have due to my work. If I cannot honestly justify my footprint by the results I'm getting, I will change the nature of my work until I can.

#4, 5 and 6 seem to me to be aimed at creating a community of sustainability practice. Perhaps that could be more explicit? (My bias here is that I think sustainability consulting is vaguely dishonest without tangible results and the creation of a community of practice.)

Holmgren's Permaculture Principles would likely apply to the concrete work of such a community of practice.


Posted by: David Foley on 4 Nov 07

A code of ethics is a great idea and I applaud your work. However, I have to agree with Dan. I assume that MOST sustainability professionals are in the field because they already share these principals at least in part. These should be more specific in directing and reminding professionals of what they should be doing. Of course they should walk the walk, but remind them how. I agree that the permaculture principals apply and are a good jumping off point. The more general the code is, the easier it will be to be lazy in compliance. Also enforcement will be tougher. "you are producing unnecessary waste" is more clear and enforceable than "you're not walking the walk"

Good luck and good work! Thanks for all you're doing.


Posted by: Sarah on 4 Nov 07

A code of ethics is a great idea and I applaud your work. However, I have to agree with Dan. I assume that MOST sustainability professionals are in the field because they already share these principals at least in part. These should be more specific in directing and reminding professionals of what they should be doing. Of course they should walk the walk, but remind them how. I agree that the permaculture principals apply and are a good jumping off point. The more general the code is, the easier it will be to be lazy in compliance. Also enforcement will be tougher. "you are producing unnecessary waste" is more clear and enforceable than "you're not walking the walk"

Good luck and good work! Thanks for all you're doing.


Posted by: Sarah on 4 Nov 07

Here's my take on the draft taking into considerations the suggestions in previous comments, especially "The Code of Ethics of Engineers" mentioned by John. Hope it helps.


TOWARDS THE SELF

1. Walk your talk.
We cannot promote change in others if we are not striving to exemplify that change in our own personal and professional lives. Make your walk visible to your social circle and clients in a refined manner as you interact with them.

2. Keep up to date.
As professionals, we have a responsibility to keep learning and constantly informing ourselves about the emerging science and practice of sustainability -- both what is happening to our world, and what can be done about it.

3. Be mindful and humble.
Sustainability is a complex and difficult issue. Before accepting a mandate, we must bear in mind the extent of our proficiency and aptitudes and also the means at our disposal to carry out the mandate.

4. Make referrals to other professionals whenever appropriate.
If someone else, or a different methodology, would be significantly more effective at meeting a specific client's needs than what you can offer, make the client aware of that option.

5. Promote right.
We may not in any way and under any circumstances make false, misleading or incomplete advertising with respect to our professional activities and services. The information that we provide in it must be of a nature to help the public make an informed choice towards sustainability.


TOWARDS THE PUBLIC AND THE GREATER COMMUNITY OF LIFE

6. Seek to do no harm.
In working with clients and promoting change, seek to avoid actions and interventions that may cause lasting damage to people, nature, community, and organizational health.

7. Maintain integrity for sustainability.
Although we must, in the practice of our profession, subordinate our personal interest to that of our client, we must never subordinate the interest of the greater sustainability vision to our personal interest or to that of our client. If a task is entrusted to us and such task goes against our conscience or our principles, we may ask to be excused from doing it.

8. Consider the systemic impacts of your advice and actions.
Sustainability professionals have a special obligation to think systemically, and to take into account the potential impacts of what they recommend or do, including impacts beyond the boundaries of the system they are operating in.

9. Share expertise, income and time.
We should donate our expertise and some fraction of our revenues and time to voluntary or non-profit initiatives that are advancing the practice of sustainability.


TOWARDS CLIENTS

10. Explain your ethical choices.
Be transparent about the criteria you use for structuring your practice and for choosing your professional engagements.

11. Apply the precautionary principle.
We must refrain from expressing or giving contradictory or incomplete opinions or advice, and from presenting or using plans, specifications and other documents which we knows to be ambiguous or which are not sufficiently explicit. We should also advise our clients to apply the precautionary principle in their operations, where scientific and professional knowledge is insufficient.

12. Tell the truth about the trends, as you see it.
In a world of great media noise and confusion, where sustainability issues and global concerns must compete for attention, we have a responsibility to our clients to keep them informed. Be clear to your clients about what you believe to be the most important trends affecting our world and their future, and why.

13. Put forward independence and impartiality.
We may not cease to act for the account of a client unless we have just and reasonable grounds for so doing. The following shall, in particular, constitute just and reasonable grounds:
(a) the fact that we are placed in a situation of conflict of interest or in a circumstance whereby our professional independence could be called in question;
(b) inducement by the client to illegal, unfair or fraudulent acts;
(c) the fact that the client ignores our advice on sustainability.


TOWARDS THE PROFESSION

14. Prioritize cooperation over competition, and impact over income.
In the community of sustainability practice, seek first for opportunities to work together with others and build on complementary strengths, rather than to compete for primacy; and weigh the chance to make change as more important than making money. Whenever necessary and possible, work pro bono.

15. Share information, and credit, with other professionals.
While client confidentiality must always be respected, it slows down progress in the field and change for sustainability if we hoard information regarding new ideas, the development of new methods, and relevant activity in the market. However, we must realize that using the work of other people without appropriate permission or citation can damaget the overall progress of our profession.


Posted by: Wibowo Sulistio on 4 Nov 07

Walk your Talk bugs me. Is Al Gore walking his talk? I think so, but many don't. It sounds good, but it is so subjective and flippant that it seems it might as well be replaced with "do the right thing." So Alan, what does Walk the Talk mean? Do I need to a)buy a prius b)buy a diesel and bio c)purchase carbon offsets d)sell my car and bike everywhere, in order to walk the talk?

I would rather sProfs be transparent. State your footprint and explain your rationale. Then others can judge if you are walking your talk, which is what is going to happen anyway.

Good start though and an even better tool for discussion!


Posted by: Bill on 5 Nov 07

Pass the granola please- you have got to be kidding.

I have no objection to a Code of Conduct for the profession but this one is 90% silly. The best way to debase ourselves is to put out something that looks like it came straight from the Whole Earth Catalogue.

You are doing damage not only to the profession, but to all real codes of conduct if you are really thinking about putting this out. Codes should have objective standards that deal specifically with the conduct pertaining to the rigor and intergrity of the work at hand. Objective so as to be enforceable. Take a look at some real codes, ones which if broken merit disciplinary action, like debarment. This is well meaning mush.

Also, lose the soundbites at the beginning of each clause. They only serve to trivialize this further.

Andy


Posted by: andy savitz on 5 Nov 07

Pass the granola please- you have got to be kidding.

I have no objection to a Code of Conduct for the profession but this one is 90% silly. The best way to debase ourselves is to put out something that looks like it came straight from the Whole Earth Catalogue.

You are doing damage not only to the profession, but to all real codes of conduct if you are really thinking about putting this out. Codes should have objective standards that deal specifically with the conduct pertaining to the rigor and intergrity of the work at hand. Objective so as to be enforceable. Take a look at some real codes, ones which if broken merit disciplinary action, like debarment. This is well meaning mush.

Also, lose the soundbites at the beginning of each clause. They only serve to trivialize this further.

Andy


Posted by: andy savitz on 5 Nov 07

This is a deeper topic than it first appears. It's hard to be objective about ethics, especially pertaining to sustainability, because if we explore this deeply enough, we may reach some troubling conclusions.

Many ethics derive from the Golden Rule, or a variation: do not do what would cause things to fall apart if everyone did it. You don't want government services to fall apart, so don't cheat on your taxes. You don't want marriage to become a sham, so don't philander. You don't want the stock market to become a rigged game, so don't inside trade. Et cetera.

Sustainability asks us to confront the fact that most of us, especially in the developed world, are violating the Golden Rule: we're living in ways that not everyone can live, now or in the future, because we're running down planetary life-support systems. The evidence is objective and clear.

As a violation of the Golden Rule, I'd say that's a doozy. Any discussion of ethics and sustainability ought to acknowledge that. I think that many of us don't want to. But to me, it's the elephant in the living room.

Most people have unsustainable ecological footprints and don't give it a second thought, and it's rare that their footprints can be offset by reduction of ecological harm or restoration of ecological integrity. One hopes that sustainability consultants think long and hard about this, and make honest assessments of their footprints versus the impact of their work.

In other words, someone of the caliber of say, Amory Lovins, can probably justify the jet fuel he consumes by the energy he has saved through his efforts. He has leveraged personal unsustainable behavior into tangible structural, systemic, and cultural shifts. With a little diligence, this could probably be quantified.

For many of the rest of us, it's not nearly as clear. I have friends whom I love dearly, but by no stretch of the imagination can I say that they're doing more good than harm. And sadly, they don't have the guts to admit that. Ethics take guts.

I'd boil the list down to this:

  • Do more good than harm.
  • Tell the truth, especially to yourself.
  • Change when that truth tells you to.
  • Treat others the way you want to be treated.
  • Value solving problems over being right.
  • Become more competent tomorrow than you were yesterday.
  • Do all of the above even when it costs you.


The enforcement that matters is self-enforcement. Otherwise, it's not ethics.


Posted by: David Foley on 6 Nov 07

Hi Alan,

I think your first Code of Ethics draft (and some of the revisions offered by Wibowo Sulistio above) is on the right track.

One explicit addition I would recommend, is something that highlights and emphasizes a commitment to MEASUREMENT of sustainability efforts, through our work and in our own lives.

Others, above, have asked whether self-enforcement is possible, or have critiqued your principles on grounds of clarity. A commitment among sustainability professionals to seeking to measure their impact, and the impacts of their clients, is the best antidote - it clarifies, encourages transparency, and helps to iteratively solve problems.


Posted by: Jeremy Friedman on 7 Nov 07

a


Posted by: Bond on 7 Nov 07



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