The Poverty Question


John DienhartSustainability can best be understood as a stool with three legs: economic health, a clean environment and social well-being. How did this stool come to be constructed? Answering this question will help us decide whether the sustainability movement is sustainable.

The call for sustainability began with the environmental movement back in the 1960s. For that decade, the stool balanced precariously on that one leg. In the 1970s, when environmentalists noticed that toxic waste sites and poverty were associated, the social justice leg was added. Still not stable. The only way to fight poverty is economic development-specifically with business. Unfortunately, business also created pollution. The third leg of the stool needed to be added, but environmentalists could not do it.

In 2002, William McDonough and Michael Braungart's Cradle to Cradle was published, which showed how paying attention to the environment saved money. In 2008, The Necessary Revolution was published, which profiled hundreds of businesspeople around the world who had saved both money and the environment. For example, Per Carstens of Sweden developed "Green Zones," clusters of businesses that use the waste of one business as the input of another. One Green Zone reduced energy use by 80 percent.

What happened to addressing poverty? In my interviews with sustainability officers in corporations, nonprofits and government agencies in the Puget Sound area, I learned that poverty is not being addressed sufficiently by the sustainability movement, creating two ethical gaps. First, marginalized populations in our country deserve an opportunity to participate in this new movement. Second, we are losing out on a valuable labor pool, compromising our ability to address our problems and be a global leader.

So who is paying attention to poverty? Besides government, there is a new player in the anti-poverty movement: business. Why is that?

Markets in developed countries are saturated. Margins are thin, and marketing money returns less and less on investment. By contrast, markets in developing countries are wide open. The best discussion of this situation is C.K. Prahalad's 2006 book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Enabling Dignity and Choice Through Markets. The "bottom of the pyramid" refers to the roughly 4 billion people in the world who live on less than two dollars a day. While this huge group is unimaginably poor, it still consumes goods. Imagine the buying power as it moves up the income ladder. Smart entrepreneurs want to help these people.

Prahalad does not pity those in poverty, nor does he want to give them money. The best way to respect the poor is to treat them as responsible people who can engage in the same kind of economic development that we find in the other parts of the world. Many of those in poverty live in environmental disaster areas. They know the toll it takes on themselves, their families and their friends. Like all rational human beings, they prefer a clean environment. We need to help them do so while protecting the environment. But we also need to provide the same opportunities and pay the same respect to the poor in our own country.

Is this sustainability movement sustainable? Not unless it pays a lot more attention to global and domestic poverty. In doing so, it can learn a lot from business.

John Dienhart is Frank Shrontz Chair for Business Ethics at Seattle University, director of the Albers Business Ethics Initiative and director of the Northwest Ethics Network.


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