When your conscience and your bottom line butt heads

Here are two options: “resigned” and “purist”

It happens. You’re halfway through a home remodel and you realize you sourced the materials from a company that’s recently made egregious environmental violations. The planks you are laying across your living room were possibly sourced from an endangered ecosystem. Now you have a half-finished floor, you don’t have quite enough lumber to complete the job, and there are no matching substitutes.

Assuming you can’t get a full refund on the basis that you don’t agree with exploiting the world’s poor and co-opting them into violating environmental protection laws, you are faced with two options:

  1. Complete the floor with the same materials, sourced from the same company.
  2. Use an alternative product for the remainder of the floor, negatively impacting your home’s aesthetic appearance and reducing its value.

This is an actual dilemma a friend of mine recently faced. Lumber Liquidators is the company in question, and you can read the Department of Justice’s statement about their legal settlement here.

My friend—let’s call him Tim—talked this over with me during a five-mile run, which I regard as a highly-productive way of working through problems. Completing the work as originally planned would weigh on his conscience, but switching suppliers would reduce the selling price of his home by at least $1,000.

I highlighted two options, which I’ll call the “resigned” option and the “purist” option. The former sacrifices environmental values to financial ones.  The latter, however admirable, is a tough call if you aren’t a millionaire.

Having never been in such a conundrum, I’m in no position to judge, but scenarios like this usually present less diametric—if less obvious—alternatives.  How might someone in this situation reconcile his opposing concerns about stewardship and his long-term financial well-being?

Thinking Expansively.

I asked a few clarifying questions, trying not to get too nosy about his personal and financial situation.  Given:

  • Tim is keenly interested in wildlife conservation and sustainability.
  • He has job security and an adequate but relatively modest income.
  • He’s in his late 20's.

When I felt like I had grasped the essential details I offered a solution off the cuff: “Complete the floor with the same lumber and give a thousand dollars to the Forest Stewardship Council when you sell your home.”

I could practically see the burden fall from his shoulders. But here’s the thing: It was the right course of action for him. There are perhaps a dozen other options that would be ethically justifiable to other people in a similar situation. While I’m not a moral relativist, I do believe that right action can be situation-dependent.

If Tim were supporting young children or ailing parents it would have made a strong case for the purely-financial call. If he were an environmental lawyer, it would make a strong case for the purely-environmental call. If he were nearing retirement, in poor health, facing a possible layoff, had recently received a large bonus, if the branch manager at Lumber Liquidators had donated a kidney to his brother—any of these things would have the potential to skew his decision.

There can be one morally right course of action for any individual, but often that will vary from person to person based on his or her circumstances. To be clear, some things are never okay. I’m no proponent of the “Whatever suits you” attitude towards morality and some issues are pretty cut and dried, but no two people are in the exact same situation. That’s why it’s so important to

Understand and Honor Your Hierarchy of Values.

Every day we make trade-offs between things we value: our professional and our family lives, household tasks and fitness goals, meditation and sleep, podcasts and traditional news media.

Environmental and social causes. Saving the rainforest and being able to afford certain opportunities for your family.

We face trade-offs daily and ethical dilemmas occasionally, but doing right doesn’t always mean doing same thing another basically ethical person would do. It’s pretty important, however, to know why you’re doing what you’re doing and be able to defend it by some objective standard.

Given that Tim has limited resources, and assuming he follows through with his stated intentions, I’d say he cleared the bar.

Categories: Business Insights, Human Resources