Good for the  Planet, Bad for  Your Ethics?

By James Ellis Arden

Going “green,” according to, means changing one’s lifestyle for the safety and benefit of the environment, and it typically occurs in three stages: (1) beginning sustainable living, (2) using environmentally friendly products, and (3) recycling and/or reusing as many products as possible.

Sounds good. And mostly, it is good. But. . . .

Some contend our environmental destiny is so much in the hands of China and other developing countries that whatever we do in the way of reusing, recycling, or changing light bulbs just doesn’t matter. Worse, they argue, these things divert attention from our making real, necessary improvements.

Ecology is not typically a cardinal business concept. Yet, the environment presents a huge obstacle to business in many realms. Environmental needs and regulations can require enormous time, expense, and changes to business operations and may bar outright many grand dreams and designs.

What does this have to do with ethics? Well, going green changes business economy, whether the business is law or something else. According to B. R. Ambedkar, Indian politician, scholar, and chief architect of the Indian Constitution, “History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics. Vested interests have never been known to have willingly divested themselves unless there was sufficient force to compel them.”

So, conflict inherently exists in any change to the economy of a law practice. And ethics are involved in processes as basic as quoting a fee to a prospective client. Greening your practice changes your overhead. Green products and practices usually entail more cost, not less. Even green changes intended to reduce overhead usually entail extra outlay at the start in order to reap benefits later. Depending on how you go green, your overhead may increase until the point at which your cost for going to Greenville equals the savings reclaimed from being there. So, going green may require you to work more; but because working more isn’t really possible, you’ll have to charge more.

The conflict between business and ecology may seem minor, but it is pervasive and ubiquitous. It may also help to explain the interesting conclusions reached by Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong in their recent University of Toronto paper entitled, “Do Green Products Make Us Better People?” ( Mazar and Zhong’s study found that green consumers were more likely to engage in situational ethics: “while mere exposure to green products can have a positive societal effect by inducing pro-social and ethical acts, purchasing green products may license indulgence in self-interested and unethical behaviors.” Mazar and Zhong put it this way in their abstract:

In line with the halo associated with green consumerism, people act more altruistically after mere exposure to green than conventional products. However, people act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal after purchasing green products as opposed to conventional products.

Apparently, study subjects who bought green products were less willing to share a set amount of money with others. Further, when given a chance to get more money by cheating on a computer game and then lying about it, the greens did cheat; the other consumers did not.

The study authors were surprised by their own findings, given that “green products are manifestations of higher ethical standards”; abundant literature shows social behavior can be primed by environmental cues. For instance, looking at pictures of fine dining restaurants can improve manners; and mere exposure to the Apple logo actually increases creativity.

On the other hand, the London Research and Consulting Group (LRCG) earlier this year criticized Mazar and Zhong for, among other things, having studied one random group rather than testing two separate groups: greens and regulars. LRCG’s opinion that using different subject pools “would most likely have produced different effects” seems rather obvious.

So, beyond producing kleptomaniacs, does going green raise other ethical concerns for lawyers?

We see a lot of e-mails these days bearing slugs such as, “save the environment: don’t print this e-mail.” If you’re trying to keep a paperless office anyway, it makes sense to save e-mail to your hard drive and not print it, right?

Maybe not.

What happens if a subpoena is issued requiring production of all these e-mails? What happens if your hard drive turns out to be the only source from which these e-mails may be obtained? You may end up at risk of having other parties going through your stuff or taking copies of it.

That’s why some lawyers’ e-mail retention policies require complete deletion of e-mail after some set period. Another strategy that might help would be to store all such e-mail on a separate, dedicated drive, or in some other, discrete medium easily removed from but not integrated with a computer system.

One other way some attorneys are going green is by giving up paper files stored on expensive real estate in favor of electronic files maintained on an Internet cloud. This can be a great way to go green, lessen terrestrial impact, and save money. But lawyers who store confidential client information on Internet cloud servers—out of lawyers’ physical control or supervision—have to consider privacy protection, security from hackers, how the firm’s information is maintained, how it is backed up, where backups are available, and even conflicts in law.

Remember, the law of unintended consequences operates in Greenville, too. Cities in the Midwest and along the upper East Coast are saving thousands of dollars in energy consumption by switching traffic signal lights over to energy-saving LEDs. At the same time, the new LED lights are causing hazards during severe snow storms because they don’t get hot enough to melt away thick snow like the old ones did. Be careful, or you might find that your own green solution is an ethical accident waiting to happen.


  • James Ellis Arden practices law in the Los Angeles metropolitan area with a focus on legal malpractice, civil litigation, and appellate matters; he may be reached at .

    Copyright 2010

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