The Role of Business in ‘the Biggest Issue We Face as a Planet’

by Diana Drake

People are doing it again – they’re talking a lot about Greta Thunberg. The 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden was just named Time magazine’s Person of the Year for the influence she has had on the world in 2019. “She became the biggest voice on the biggest issue facing the planet this year, coming from essentially nowhere to lead a worldwide movement,” Time Editor in Chief Edward Felsenthal said on NBC’s “Today” show.

While this honor spotlights a person for her role as a beacon for change (and the broader movement of young people pushing for action), it is also a statement about the severity of the issue to which Thunberg is so dedicated – the global climate crisis.

Eric Orts, a Wharton professor of legal studies and business ethics, supports Thunberg and the movement that has grown up around her. “The fossil fuel companies want to discover, produce and burn as much coal as possible. That’s a business model. The science is telling us very clearly with one voice that that behavior will destroy the planet. People like Greta Thunberg are completely right about that. We have to look at the science,” says Orts, who is also director of Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (visit the toolbar to the right of this article for direct links to this and other resources). “If you’re a business and you only care about money, and that’s a lot of the business world – let’s face it, that’s what we teach students here at Wharton: maximize the amount of money you’re making. If that’s all you care about, Greta’s right. That’s not acceptable. If everyone behaves that way, we are destroying the planet and we have to stop doing that. You can’t just care about money. You have to care about other things too, like the world we live in and future generations.” 

As we reach the end of this revolutionary year of youth climate activism and head into a new one with even stronger purpose, global sustainability is an essential challenge for the world. As a result, even the higher education community is taking action. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, just announced its Environmental Innovations Initiative, bringing together researchers, scholars and students to “develop new ideas and innovative solutions for our global environment.”  

Penn’s Wharton School has also responded to the growing demand in this area, establishing a new MBA major called Business, Energy, Environment and Sustainability. And the Wharton Risk Management and Decision Processes Center has a new Climate Risk and Resilience Lab studying risks associated with the impacts of climate change.

All of this is to say that understanding the language of this movement has become more critical than ever. Wharton Global Youth called on Orts to help clarify the key concepts fueling the climate change movement, as well as address an important aspect of the debate – the intersection of business pursuits and environmental protection.

Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Wharton Global Youth Program: What is sustainability?

Eric Orts: For me, the basic idea is that as we live our lives as human beings, we use our natural resources and we treat the natural world in a manner that at minimum does not hurt future generations. In other words, we don’t destroy the earth in order to have a great life now without caring about our children, grandchildren and future generations of human beings. I think it’s also fair to say that it should include a respect for biodiversity, for various species of animal and plant life. If we look at a problem like climate change or climate destruction, which is really what’s happening, we’re also destroying a lot of biological nature and other species, as well as the foundation of life for the future. Sustainability means changing that so that every day, whether we’re in business or whatever we’re doing, we’re acting in a way that is going to preserve the natural environment and its resources for the future.

Wharton Global Youth: What is business sustainability?

Orts: I look at the current system of business and see a big problem. Right now, the way business is set up is that there’s no polite way to say it: business is destroying the world. That’s a quote from Paul Hawken [American environmentalist and entrepreneur]. A lot of the processes of business are destroying our world, contributing to climate destruction, contributing to species loss. Business sustainability to me means you have to reform our system. I teach at Wharton, so it’s not surprising that I’m not against business. That’s one of the problems we have: a lot of people just attack business. Business sustainability means you reform the way in which we are doing business. Right now, too many models of business — the ways business is taught and practiced – are in order to maximize profits. Period. They don’t care about sustainable goals or metrics or performance issues. Or if some businesses do put that in, it amounts to marketing or greenwashing. You need to reform business, and there are different ways to do that.

Wharton Global Youth: What are some examples of business that are achieving this type of reform?

Orts: Two of my favorites are Interface carpet company and Patagonia clothing. The CEO of Interface read a book called The Ecology of Commerce, and he said, wait a second. I’m in a business that’s terrible for the environment. The manufacture of carpet is all petroleum-based. We sell all this carpet and then at the end of the day it goes into landfills and it’s a terrible earth-destroying business. It changed how he thought about the company. They don’t use oil anymore and they replace the carpet, bring it back and reuse it to make it into new carpet. Patagonia is privately held and they explicitly say, yes, we’re making money but we’re giving a huge amount of money away to preserve the environment. The only thing that’s not recycled in our “Better Sweater” is the zipper, and we’re working on that.

Wharton Global Youth: Are these companies part of the new circular economy?

Orts: Yes, the circular economy is about closing the loop on the cycle. The European Union is putting in place some regulations to try to encourage the circular economy. You create a cycle where at the end of the day you recycle and reuse the stuff you’re making. It’s recycling in a deep way. Once you use up your clothes, you send them back and they reuse the materials. You’re hurting the planet less by closing the loop on where you’re sourcing things. And you’re not using new things. More and more companies are starting to look at this approach.

“It’s not helpful to demonize. What’s the alternative? If you say capitalism and businesses are terrible and let’s destroy them all, then the question becomes, who is going to run everything?” — Eric Orts, Wharton Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics

Wharton Global Youth: How does your research help to encourage this mindset?

Orts: I wrote a paper with my Wharton colleague Brian Berkey that has been written but not published, where we argue that there’s a climate imperative for management. It’s the biggest issue that we face as a planet. In that respect, I’m totally on board with Greta for calling attention to it. Every business has to have a climate imperative about its behavior. Some businesses have bigger responsibilities than others. If you’re a carbon major like ExxonMobil, then you really have to change because the big carbon majors are putting the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. If you can get them to start to change, then you can start to change how things are going to turn out. It’s unlikely that they’ll change without some force and without a lot of effort. They have to have a big change from an oil-based business to more renewable energy sources.

Wharton Global Youth: So often in this climate and sustainability conversation, people point fingers at business as the evildoer. Why is this shortsighted?

Orts: It’s not helpful to demonize. What’s the alternative? If you say capitalism and businesses are terrible and let’s destroy them all, then the question becomes, who is going to run everything? Usually, the answer is the government. If you look at historical examples in China and the USSR, it doesn’t always turn out very well. The environment is terrible in both of those places. You can’t say something is terrible without saying what your alternative is. For me, the alternative is that you reform the business system and you look for the good businesses. One way is that people start businesses that explicitly say, look, we’re a business so we make profits, but that’s not our only objective. We’re actually trying to save the world in some other sense. Let’s say you are a wind power company. The more that you are transforming the energy grid to wind rather than oil, you are a positive company with respect to climate. You can also look at your personal behavior. Instead of saying all oil companies are evil, what kind of car do you have and how are you getting to school? Where are you going on spring break and how are you going to get there? You can start to change your behavior and change business too. Everyone needs to care about this issue.

Related Links

Conversation Starters

What does Professor Eric Orts mean when he says, “It’s not helpful to demonize?” Why is this so fundamental to inspiring real change in environmental sustainability and policy?

What is the circular economy?

Are you a champion of environmental sustainability? If so, how have you changed your personal behavior to reflect your views and become part of the solution? Share your story in the comment section of this article.

4 comments on “The Role of Business in ‘the Biggest Issue We Face as a Planet’

  1. The pencil in my hand seemed to fly across the page, its dark sandy lead scratching the paper. I was trying my best to focus as much as I could, constantly checking the time, hoping no more than a minute had passed. The uneven road made it extremely difficult to write anything on a moving school bus, but that was the least of my worries. I was trying to finish my homework as quickly as possible before the bus reached my school, upset that I really had no time the night before. All background noise and light had been filed down to a buzz, and I was so concentrated I seemed to have forgotten about my best friend sitting right next to me. I ended up finishing my assignment on time, but by then, my fingers felt like hot mush. After turning in my homework that morning, I told myself I wouldn’t let this happen again. I would manage my time better and learn from this mistake, to get my work done as soon as I found the time for it. How funny that moment was, because I had no idea I would end up procrastinating again that same night.
    Thinking back to that moment now, I understand all the ways I could have prevented such an incident, though I never took the time to consider any of them then. I realized that nearsightedness and very direct thinking leads to harmful consequences — in my case, a lot of work with little time to do it. Additionally, the failure to think ahead will hinder your progress in reaching your goals, and it isn’t beneficial in the least to think only about what’s in front of you. I agree with Eric Orts’ opinion that Greta Thunberg is an extremely influential activist that has changed many people, but also agree with his claim that despite such accomplishments, she isn’t thinking ahead enough. Greta may have become an icon, but has not necessarily provided an “alternative solution” to capitalism. It is evident from Orts’ interview that she is too nearsighted with her goals, blaming only capitalism without fully exploring the potential consequences. Being a global activist is no easy task, but it is very helpful to be prepared and have more than just “capitalism” to use. Without proper planning and thinking, you are setting yourself on a path towards a big wall you’ll one day blindly crash into. I discovered the hard way that if you don’t plan well and find a backup plan when needed, you’ll hit that wall without ever knowing it existed.

    When I entered high school, I was unprepared for the huge amount of work I had to do. Middle school was no problem for me, so I had no idea what to expect when I moved forward. One night, I found myself rushing to complete all my assignments on time, staying up way later than usual so that I could maintain my grade. I had three tests the next week and was not willing to do poorly on them. During that time, I had lots of homework, track practice into the night, and a three-hour round trip by school bus, how was I supposed to find time for homework? Even more, I was slacking off. What resulted was me finishing my work on the bus, studying whenever I could, sleeping later than usual, and feeling very tired. If I had planned more efficiently and set better goals than “later” and looked ahead, I wouldn’t have been so blind to the path I was putting myself on. Instead of thinking about the days ahead of me that I could use to spread my work evenly, I just cared about the hour I had to spare before dinner. After realizing the mess I’d gotten myself into, I learned I could not just walk away and let such a mistake happen again. Every time I have work to get done, I remember all the times I became so stressed because I let everything pile up. If I don’t finish my work now, I’ll have a repeat of the past, and I won’t have learned from my mistakes. Now I’m learning and figuring out how to plan my work better. Since opening my eyes, I’ve been able to see what I wasn’t able to before and use that to improve my work ethic.

    As Orts said, “It’s not helpful to demonize.” Greta Thunberg is not the only one this applies to: he means that in general, taking such bold steps without thinking through the consequences will get you nowhere. If anything, it’ll just drag you down, just as when I procrastinated my school work. In the process of simply “demonizing” capitalism, Greta had failed to provide what should replace it instead. The only thing she had done was attack a concept. Whether the situation is a global crisis or a couple of homeworks, it is very important to think further than just what’s directly in front of you. When you stop being nearsighted and learn from your past mistakes, you begin to see the little details in your journey that can lead it down a greater path.

  2. Orts accurately captures the struggle between environmentalism and business priorities in this interview. By mentioning demonization of climate champions and the circular economy, he highlights some of the most pressing topics of discussion in sustainability. To be the most effective, sustainability must first be taken on the scale of society, and then broadened to include businesses. As stated in the interview, corporations such as Interface are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint. With enough effort, this leadership can help businesses globally as well, facilitating the decrease in greenhouse emissions and pollution.

    Pollution and global warming are things that we have been taught about since a young age, yet as we grow and become able to shape our own thoughts, we begin to decrease the importance of these issues, taking less action.

    When environmental justice doesn’t affect us on a personal scale, forgetting that people in less-developed countries, such as Lithuania and South Africa, suffer from lack of clean air and drinking water. Even people in our own countries feel these same issues, with wealth inequality and systemic racism barring individuals from obtaining safer lives.

    It’s important to remember that we should be the ones that continue the efforts of past generations into the future through effective education, advocacy, and leadership, efforts which are amplified by our youth. While extreme environmentalists such as Greta Thunberg do face criticism and significant backlash, efforts of smaller activist groups can and should be emphasized on the world stage. This way, everyone understands the need to act.

  3. What a fantastic article!

    I was 12 years old when I first learned about Greta Thunberg. She was another kid whose activism spoke to me like no other classroom lesson could. My focus early on was on the orcas and and how warming ocean waters and plastic ocean pollution were severely affecting the ocean ecosystems and species survival. This was the beginning of my education about climate change.

    Just as I embarked on an on-going education about climate change, so too must businesses learn and adapt to these environmental issues. That “business is destroying the world” is so very true. Look at the plastics industry, for example, whose non-biodegradable products are permanently polluting the planet. Plastic ocean pollution is intricately linked to climate change. The warming oceans, full of plastic, is the carbon sink we have all taken for granted and threaten to destroy.

    Yes, many businesses are destroying ecosystems and contributing to climate change. Yes, businesses need to have sustainable goals or metrics with the goal of protecting the planet.

    But how to get businesses to think out of the profits box? The concept of business sustainability will need to be a reformation that first redefines how one measures business success and that to me starts with education.

    I learned what a circular economy is as a founding member of a student run, non-profit organization called “Smart Recycling Now.” We addressed a new source of plastic pollution born out of the COVID pandemic, the surgical mask. We found a way to recycle the plastic in these masks into plastic lumber and use that lumber to build owl homes for an endangered owl population. Our educational mission was to show kids how plastic could be recycled and be reused to create another product to help an ecosystem. This was our attempt at an example of circular economy. The concept of a circular economy was new to all of us, and that lesson transformed our way of looking at other businesses.

    Through this experience, I learned how uninformed and therefore how unconcerned many people are about the environment and climate change. It is not that people don’t care; they are simply not informed enough. Sustainability and circular economy are not words in many people’s vocabulary, period.

    This brings us back to education. To think out of the profits box, one must learn about a different kind of business model and a different way to define business success as Professor Orts explains in his discussion about business sustainability. It will be a civic responsibility to consider one’s footprint on the environment and our planet.

    This is why “demonizing” and simply placing blame is the very opposite of educating and informing. Demonizing only places the other on defense and shuts down any meaningful discourse on how to work together and develop that climate imperative that businesses need. Not to demonize is a lesson in leadership.

    Businesses are the perfect platform to create change and serve as role models. Instead of being “demonized,” businesses need to be encouraged, motivated and rewarded for following better sustainability practices because through their products, they can reach millions of consumers. Those consumers in turn will learn the importance of sustainability and protecting the planet through the use of those very products. A continuous cycle between consumer and successful business sustainability hopefully starts this way. Businesses and their products are a very powerful platform and voice that should not be demonized but championed, molded and adapted to these changing times.

    For example, “Notpla” is a 2022 Earthshot prize winner. Notpla is producing a seaweed and plant-based alternative to single-use plastic with the goal of reducing landfill and ocean plastic waste. This may be the savior to the single-use plastics problem. Every time their product reaches a consumer, they are also educating the consumer. This Earthshot prize is one example of recognition that helps support, motivate and spread the word about being conscious about our planet. It starts a ripple effect that can influence millions of people.

    The first step to create change is to educate the younger generation. After my experience with Smart Recycling Now, I am creating an educational program to teach younger kids about ocean plastic pollution. I am creating my school’s first environmental sustainability club and I plan to start our school’s first newspaper column on the environment and climate change. If you teach early enough, the importance of saving the planet is a necessity that becomes accepted without question. Concepts like sustainability and circular economy will hopefully become as basic as eating your three meals a day or finishing your day at school. Some of these students will become future business leaders and if we start early enough, hopefully later that reformation for business sustainability will become a lasting change.

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