Partiality of Responsibility: Ethics in Sustainability Consulting

R.S. Earhart

Research output: Types of ThesisDoctoral ThesisAcademic

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Sustainability, Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) are both highly normative fields of professional practice, framed by various narratives: capitalist versus environmentalist, waste versus respect for the planet, consumerism versus responsibility; opportunism versus sustainability. These practices make claims that simultaneously compliment and oppose current conventional economic and management systems. Sustainable business consultants claim to be ‘normative professionals’ – supposedly what they do is ethically desirable and even necessary. Using ethnographic and autoethnographic methods, this book examines the discourse of a group of professionals from 2002 – 2009, a period of time that represents the ‘pioneer phase’ of the profession of sustainability and CSR management consulting. In this ethnography I describe the normative universe of a discourse, which frequently contradicts the social and performative behaviours that support the normative claims. The paradox created by these contradictions results in a situation that is untenable and unbearable for the normative ethical professional. Indeed, the primary concern of this project is how CSR and sustainability professionals, as human individuals, grapple with the challenges of reconciling the demands of two very different paradigms. Professionals often present this discourse as being both dialogic and polyphonic, however, elements of simulacra and hyper-reality are present that undermine such an interpretation. A difficult paradox emerges when sustainability, as it has been theorised, encounters a post-fordist economic system. Professionals in CSR, SRI and business ethics cannot reconcile the theories of sustainability with the demands of performative business practices in the current economic system, nor with the dysfunctional behaviours that result. As a possible solution, sustainability professionals require an ethics that is in a constant relationship of responsibility to others, to work through these paradoxes. In particular, I examine the “ethics of responsibility” inspired by John Roberts’ interpretation of Levinas in order to assess the flawed, partial possibility, of an ethics of ethical practice. I also explore how this ethical approach to the field of sustainability and CSR consulting may provide some form of resolution as the profession evolves from a territory of independent consultants to employees rooted in large organisations. As a professional consultant in the field of CSR and sustainability, I am looking to inform my own practice as well as the practices of my partners and colleagues. The relevance of an ‘ethics of ethical practice’ also applies to several fields, such as business ethics consulting, corporate governance, regulatory professionals, and others.
Original languageAmerican English
  • Letiche, H., Supervisor
  • Moriceau, J.L., Supervisor, External person
Award date8 Mar 2011
Print ISBNs9789090260440
Electronic ISBNs9789090260440
Publication statusPublished - 8 Mar 2011

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