Independent thesis Advanced level (degree of Master (Two Years)), 20 credits / 30 HE credits
Since 1987, the United Nations has promoted sustainable development as a form of
development that takes into account and balances economic, ecological, and social
considerations. To achieve sustainability, the United Nations has repeatedly required private
businesses—among other actors—to assume a broader set of social responsibilities. This is
though highly contested in the corporate world and among economists. To throw light on this
debate, the aim of this paper is to assess whether contemporary theories of business ethics are
compatible with the Brundtland notion of sustainable development. For that reason, the
responsibilities for sustainable development that corporations should assume are deduced
from the Brundtland Report; followed by an introduction to the field of business ethics and a
detailed discussion of major contemporary theories reflecting instrumental, integrative,
political, and ethical approaches to corporate social responsibility. By comparing the different
responsibilities the compatibility of sustainability with each discussed theory on business
ethics is assessed. This paper finds that the compatibility is low for instrumental theories,
moderate for integrative and political theories, and high for ethical theories on business ethics.
Nevertheless, ethical theories assume a normative perspective on sustainable development,
idealizing how corporations ought to act in a sustainable world. In reality, the world is far
from sustainability. This is not least a result of national economic and legal policies
maintaining conditions and structures that continue to promote globalization and free markets.
It is argued that the combination of fierce competition and corporations’ opportunities to take
advantage of weak legal systems in emerging and developing countries leads firms to further
subscribe to an instrumental approach to business ethics. It is suggested that international
politics develop a global legal framework based on sustainable development that provides
competitive conditions at arm’s length.
At the same time, recent management research is presented that suggests that corporations can
promote sustainability if they contribute solutions to the social and environmental problems of
our time. The pursuit of sustainability, therefore, results more from business opportunities
than from any ethical convictions.
Sustainable development, business ethics, corporate social responsibility (CSR), shareholder value, stakeholder management, corporate citizenship