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The QMS Ethics, Responsibility and Sustainability Blog 

The QMS ERS Blog exists to share information on our educational activities, research output, and societal engagement in relation to ethics, responsibility and sustainability in a fast, informative and accessible way.   

In addition, the ERS Blog allows us to provide updates on our progress in relation to the implementation of PRME, as well as discuss how our work supports the advancement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Blog Posts

Author: Dr Laura Steele

From Aristotle to Artificial Intelligence: Can Ancient Theories be Applied to Modern Ethical Challenges?

The concept of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has long captured human imagination, eliciting both excitement and apprehension. Alongside the promise of economic, social, and environmental progress, come deep concerns about the potential moral implications. Can ancient theories help us unpack these modern ethical challenges?

According to Nilsson (1998), ‘Artificial intelligence, broadly (and somewhat circularly) defined, is concerned with intelligent behaviour in artifacts. Intelligent behaviour, in turn, involves perception, reasoning, learning, communicating, and acting in complex environments’. AI is no longer a future prospect, but a present reality. The aforementioned ‘artifacts’ now include popular virtual assistants such as Alexa and Siri, ready to answer (almost) any question posed to them; the powerful algorithms underpinning websites such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, which offer up tailored suggestions for your next binge-worthy boxset; or the home thermostat Nest, which learns to anticipate and adjust the ambient temperature to meet your needs (and, for which, Google paid $3.2 billion in 2014). That these now seem almost mundane perhaps reflects the fact that tasks once considered to require ‘intelligence’ are frequently removed from the scope of AI once they have entered in to common use in a phenomenon known as the ‘AI effect’. This has led to the suggestion by Larry Tesler that ‘AI is whatever hasn’t been done yet’.

So, what potential business benefits can AI offer? According to the Harvard Business Review, these may include enhancing the features, functions, and performance of products; improved decision making; refinement of business operations; freeing up of workers to focus on more creative tasks; pursuing new markets; and the optimisation of external processes, such as sales and marketing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has led to fears that the rise in AI will lead to significant job losses. While new employment opportunities will undoubtedly be created, it has been argued that there will not be enough to offset those eliminated.  For example, what career options will exist for truck drivers if their vehicles are automated within the next few years? Something leading automotive companies such as Volvo are on target to achieve. Some contend that we have seen this kind of ‘creative destruction’ before, most notably during the Industrial Revolution. However, others counter that the rapid pace of change is unprecedented. Beyond boosting profitability, businesses are also using AI to address environmental challenges, such as sustainable food production. For example, The Yield, an Australian agri-tech company, uses sensors, data, and AI to assist farmers in making informed decisions in relation to ‘how, when and where to best plant, irrigate, protect, feed and harvest their crops’. This, the founder claims, can help increase efficiency, which is beneficial for both the producer and the planet.

In addition to private sector companies, a wide range of public actors, including individual governments and international organisations, are looking at AI as a tool for addressing large-scale economic, environmental, and social challenges. In the United Kingdom (UK), the AI Sector Deal published in 2018 states that ‘creating an economy that harnesses artificial intelligence (AI) and big data is one of the great opportunities of our age’. However, the UK government is also mindful of the moral dilemmas that may arise and have established a Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation to analyse these. At a supranational the United Nations (UN) has developed a platform – AI for Good – that facilitates dialogue and acts as a catalyst for projects aimed at tackling sustainability issues, such as those addressed by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Current initiatives are focusing on issues such as the impact of plastic pollution on ocean life; the relationship between health, sleep, and nutrition; and the potential for personalised education for children and young people.

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The QMS Ethics, Responsibility, Sustainability Blog exists to share information on our educational activities, research output, and societal engagement across these areas in a fast, informative and accessible way.

Opinions expressed in the blog are solely those of the original author and should not be construed as representing the views of Queen's Management School.


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Author: Dr Laura Steele

Cleaner Clothes: Improving Sustainability in the Fashion Industry

Fast fashion is big business, but with staggering environmental and social costs attached that are rarely reflected on the price tag. How can the industry balance predicted growth against deepening concerns regarding sustainability and human rights?

According to the British Fashion Council, the fashion industry directly contributed over £32 billion to UK GDP in 2017, up 5.4% from the previous year. Indeed, the sector outperformed the rest of the economy by some 1.6% over the same period. It is a significant employer, supporting around 890,000 jobs ranging from design and manufacturing to retail sales. From a consumer perspective, there has never been greater choice. The democratising effects of so-called “fast fashion” – rapidly produced, inexpensive, mass market garments – means that following design trends is no longer the preserve of a wealthy few. As a result, research by McKinsey & Company found that the average consumer bought 60% more clothing in 2014 than in 2000, but kept each garment half as long. Perhaps unsurprisingly, concerns have been mounting over the environmental and social impact of such changes. 

The UN Environment Programme reported that the fashion industry produces 20 percent of global waste water and 10 percent of carbon emissions, more than international aviation and maritime transport combined. In terms of the raw materials used to produce apparel, cotton is particularly problematic because of the large quantities of land, water, fertilisers and pesticides required to produce it. Non-biodegradable alternatives, such as polyester, require less water and can be recycled. However, there is evidence that just one load of laundry containing polyester, nylon or acrylic clothing can discharge over 700,000 microplastic fibres into the water supply. These fibres are not only detrimental to sea life, they can also end up in the human food chain with as yet undetermined consequences.

The dyeing of fabric is another area of concern, with more than 1,900 chemicals used in the production of garments, of which 165 are classified by the EU as hazardous to health or the environment. Indeed, the UK Health and Safety Executive cautions that exposure to certain textile dyes can cause respiratory problems, skin complaints and, in the case of benzidine based products, cancer. In textile producing countries were health and safety standards are lax, garment workers are frequently exposed to such toxins. Runoff from the dyeing process can pollute waterways and disrupt ecosystems affecting the wider community. It is also a thirsty activity, frequently requiring a 1-to-30 dye-to-water ratio. This has led to reports of factories exhausting local water supplies.

The problems do not end once the product has been produced, as it must then be transported to the point of sale. In an increasingly globalized world, this may necessitate a journey of thousands of miles. The environmental impact of this stage has been significantly reduced though the work of key industry players improving their flow of goods…

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The QMS Ethics, Responsibility, Sustainability Blog exists to share information on our educational activities, research output, and societal engagement across these areas in a fast, informative and accessible way.

Opinions expressed in the blog are solely those of the original author and should not be construed as representing the views of Queen's Management School.

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Author: Lauren Patricia

So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish: Modern Slavery within Seafood Supply Chains

Big fish is bigger industry than ever before; global fish consumption per capita more than doubled between 1961 and 2015 according to FAO figures. With this huge growth comes concerns for ensuring that the fish we eat is ethically produced and not harming the world around us. In seeking sustainable seafood, one may find themselves confronted with dozens of questions and few clear answers. These questions may include:

  • Which has a greater impact on the environment, farmed or wild-caught fish?
  • Is the fish farm polluting the local area or introducing invasive species?
  • Is the species overfished or the regional source depleted?
  • Is the fishing method causing wider ecological impacts, such as the accidental capture of dolphins and turtles or destruction of sea-beds?

Now there’s another question for ethical seafood lovers to ask themselves:

  • Is my choice contributing to modern-day slavery? 

Today’s consumers are generally aware of environmental issues within the seafood industry, brought to light through schemes such as Dolphin-Safe labelling, campaigns including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s ‘Fish Fight’ launched in 2010, and media reports on stock crises such as the North Sea cod collapse of the mid-2000s. 

However, growing media attention is now being paid to the previously hidden social impacts of the seafood industry, which employed an estimated 56.6 million people globally in 2014. These claims span all oceans and affect numerous products, from cat-food to sashimi. Investigations over the last few years have found exploitation of migrant fishermen on Irish boats, human trafficking within the Thai shrimp supply-chain, and Southeast Asian fishermen living in squalor on-board boats in Hawaii. Exploitation hotspots have been revealed within the supply chains of wild tuna and farmed shrimp, with a focus on Southeast Asia and international fishing fleets; Asia represented 75% of the world’s fishing fleet in 2014. According to research by the Global Slavery Index, between 2011 and 2016 ‘76 percent of migrant workers in the Thai fishing industry had been held in debt bondage and almost 38 percent had been trafficked into the Thai fishing industry in that time-frame’. The focus of this post is the tuna industry due to the huge media interest surrounding it.

We cannot ignore that sea fishing is demanding and dangerous work. The United States’ 2016 ‘Census of Occupational Industries’ as reported by Time listed ‘Fishers and related fishing workers’ as the second most dangerous profession in the States, with 86 fatal injuries per 100,000 people. Whilst global figures are not available, risks may be higher still outside of the US and onto the high seas where boats operate beyond scrutiny. Beyond the inherent risks in fishing are the human risks of abuse and exploitation, which mar the industry with another black mark.

By Lauren Patricia, BSc Business Management student at Queen’s Management School.

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Author: Dr Laura Steele

QMS: Our Commitment to Ethics, Responsibility and Sustainability (ERS)

In 2017, Queen’s Management School became a signatory to the United Nations backed Principles of Responsible Management Education (PRME) initiative. PRME was founded in 2007 as a platform to raise the profile of sustainability in universities around the world and equip today’s business  students with the understanding and ability to deliver change tomorrow. Over the last decade PRME has grown to encompass over 650 signatories worldwide, who regularly work together to advance the Six Principles underpinning the initiative. 

These include creating educational frameworks, materials, processes and environments that enable effective learning experiences for responsible leadership, as well as interacting with managers of businesses to extend our knowledge of their challenges in meeting social and environmental responsibilities. 

In addition to our work in relation to PRME, we are also placing an increasing focus on how our teaching, research, and engagement activities can support the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). The 17 SDGs, which form part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, were adopted by world leaders in 2015 and officially came into force on 1 January 2016. The aim of the SDGs is to encourage countries to focus their efforts on ending all forms of poverty, fighting inequalities, addressing climate change, and ensuring that no one is left behind. 

The objectives of the SDGs – and indeed PRME – are undoubtedly ambitious. In order to achieve them, or even come close, as many institutions, organisations and individuals as possible need to play a role. At QMS we recognise our responsibility in this regard. While our membership of the PRME community is relatively new, our commitment to ethics, responsibility and sustainability is long-standing and steadfast. One example of how we address ERS within the School is through our portfolio of modules.  In some cases this takes the form of analysing ERS issues within the context of a subject such as supply chain management, financial accounting, or behavioural economics. Alternatively, there are a number of dedicated modules, such as undergraduate Business Ethics, which requires final year students to analyse and report on real world organisations that have arguably failed to uphold their ethical obligations. In addition, the 2018-2019 academic year will see the introduction of a new postgraduate module on Business Governance and Ethics that will blend theory, research and professional practice to advance the knowledge and skills of participants.  

We look forward to sharing our work in relation to ERS through this new blog. In the meantime, if you would like more information please contact the QMS ERS Champion, Dr Laura Steele.

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