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The Sustainability Professional's Code of Ethics

This article was written by Alan AtKisson in November 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

stone%20steps.jpg 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

A Code of Ethics for Sustainability Professionals is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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I think codes and certifications can be good ways to increase the visibility of what is to so many a new field. However, there exists a great number of people who do significant work to advance sustainability in their communities who are not paid to do so. To be inclusive of those who do this work on a volunteer basis, the code should perhaps refer to sustainability "practitioners" as opposed to "professionals".

Posted by: E.R. Dunhill on 25 Sep 08



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