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Catalyzing Change:
Georgia Tech Establishes Hub for Sustainable Business Collaboration

Howard Connell, managing director of Georgia Tech’s new Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business, points to the panel of presenters at the Center’s inaugural event as an example of how it plans to address the systemic complexities of sustainability.

Howard Connell, managing director of Georgia Tech’s new Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business, points to the panel of presenters at the Center’s inaugural event as an example of how it plans to address the systemic complexities of sustainability.

At that event last summer, the CEOs of Coca-Cola Enterprises, aluminum company Novelis, and Walmart, as well as top administrators for the Environmental Defense Fund and the EPA, spoke candidly with an audience of nearly 200 students, faculty and industry members.

“These are the people who create one of the world’s leading consumer products, who create its packaging, and who sell it,” Connell noted. “Not to mention, the heads of the Environmental Defense Fund and the EPA, who have come to be viewed as essential partners in sustainability efforts. They are all interested in incorporating sustainability into the production, distribution and recycling of Coca-Cola products.”

“Georgia Tech already serves a leadership role in terms of sustainability when you look at the back end of business, including our research on supply chains, logistics, and manufacturing,” according to Assistant Marketing Professor Omar Rodriguez-Vila. “Through the Center, we can complement that research by exploring how to turn sustainability actions into a competitive advantage.”

Connell, who was a management consultant and served as a sustainability leader for Kimberly-Clark prior to joining Scheller, agrees. “If you look across Georgia Tech, you see cutting-edge technologies and innovations that are being developed in renewable energy, renewable bio-materials, nano technologies, big data and analytics and more,” he says.

“When you look across the city of Atlanta, you see global companies and organizations like Georgia Pacific, Coca-Cola, UPS, Delta, Home Depot and Cox Communications. Not to mention that Atlanta is home to the world’s largest passenger airport and incredible conference facilities. We have the ideal setting to bring together the essential parties to collaborate on sustainable solutions,” he concludes.

Interdisciplinary Approach

The breadth and depth of research already in place is one of the Center’s greatest strengths, according to Professor Beril Toktay, who founded the Center with seed funding from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation and the Kendeda Fund, and serves as its faculty director.

Several faculty members are already working together on sustainability research, including Toktay, who has teamed up with Associate Professor Atalay Atasu to explore innovative business models to operationalize the “circular economy” concept.

Others, such as Professor Ravi Subramanian and Assistant Professor Manpreet Hora, are researching sustainability best practices they can share with companies, with the goal of encouraging companies to take a broader view of sustainability.

The questions they’re exploring include: Why do firms create positions for Chief Sustainability Officers? What’s the role that these officers play and what role can they play? And does the appointment of such officers influence firm performance?

“The motivation to address such questions is to confirm whether sustainability is viewed as a function of a business or rather as the whole organization,” Hora says.

As part of the effort to encourage new initiatives, the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business has established an academic venture fund to provide researchers seed money. Center faculty also come together on a regular basis — and invite potential industry partners — to define research topics that might be addressed from multiple perspectives.

“We’re all looking at what could we do now that we couldn’t do before,” Toktay says.

Audacious Goal

Despite its youth as a center, the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business is poised to change Georgia Tech as an institution. The university recently decided to embrace sustainability-focused community engagement and service learning education as part of its reaffirmation of accreditation process by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

A core tenet of the reaffirmation process is the development of a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) to take student learning to new levels throughout the institution. Over the next five years, the Serve•Learn•Sustain Quality Enhancement Plan will create the opportunity for every Georgia Tech graduate to have a greater understanding of sustainability and to use that knowledge in project-based learning drawn from communities to address real-world sustainability problems, according to Toktay.

For those familiar with sustainability, Anderson, a Georgia Tech alum who established Interface as the world’s largest designer and maker of carpet tiles, serves as a role model for changing business models. In 1994, Anderson had an epiphany when he read Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce, and refocused his energies on eliminating any negative impact his company had on the environment by the year 2020 — a goal that's still in place.

Following his death in 2011, the Ray C. Anderson Foundation was established to “create a brighter, sustainable world through the funding of innovative, educational, and project-based initiatives.” The committment to Scheller is its largest to date.

“When we established the foundation, we decided that our impact would not be the dollars we gave away, but inspiring people with Ray’s story,” Lanier says. “The Center has the potential to amplify that legacy.”

“That’s a big, audacious goal,” Lanier says of the Serve•Learn•Sustain Plan, “that will transform Georgia Tech to the model for sustainability among leading higher education institutions.”

Inspired Leaders of Tomorrow

Both Toktay and Connell emphasize that the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business is dedicated to students benefitting from its efforts.

With that in mind, Connell developed and is teaching both undergraduate and graduate practicums that are focused on sustainable business consulting and include students working with industry partners on what he describes as “actual, strategically important projects.”

One of the benefits of having companies such as UPS and Home Depot headquartered in Atlanta is the access students have to industry leaders. Connell notes that during the practicums, students have multiple meetings with their corporate partners, including bi-weekly check-ins, a process that allows for the sort of evolution and refining of projects that students will face in the real world.

The process is providing companies with high-quality solutions, Connell says, noting that one company stated that the student team’s project delivered a better result than an independent consulting company.

Toktay teaches a class titled Business Strategies for Sustainability where students are introduced to best practices in sustainable business and are given an opportunity to combine their creative and entrepreneurial skills to develop business models or product ideas that would have a positive environmental or social impact. This course uses a tournament-style voting process to determine which projects will be further developed with early-stage business plans and investor pitches.

The efforts of Center faculty were recognized in 2014 with the Scheller College of Business being named a grand prize recipient of the Dr. Alfred N. and Lynn Manos Page Prize for Sustainability Issues in Business Curricula and being ranked eighth in the “Global 100 Sustainable MBA Programs” by Corporate Knights magazine.

“The Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business supports developing curriculum, student opportunities, and faculty research that address some of the most pressing challenges — and opportunities — facing business,” says Toktay. “We are educating the Ray Andersons of tomorrow. Our goal is to reach our students early and educate the inspired leaders of the future.”

This is the fifth article in a sponsored series called “Academic Engagement: How Business & Business Schools Partner to Drive Sustainable Innovation.” The series features sustainability research centers at six top business schools and explains how they partner with industry. The entire series is available as a complimentary download here.