Stakeholder Trends and Insights
Academic Centers Positioned to Lead Major Sustainability Work

Need to solve a sustainability problem?

Get the smartest people from industry, government, NGOs and academia. Put them together. And stir.

That’s an oversimplification of the recipe for success that surfaced several weeks ago during the inaugural event (video) of the Center for Business Strategy and Sustainability (CBSS) at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Although simple, it reveals the opportunity academic units such as CBSS have to become pre-competitive leaders — to be the ones bringing all those smart people together in the same room.

The insight came during a panel discussion that included CEOs of Walmart, Coca-Cola Enterprises and Novelis, as well as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This particular group of smart people agreed that interdisciplinary, cross-sector approaches are the next big step in sustainability work.

It’s a step for which academic institutions can prepare the next generation of business executives, but just as importantly, they can play a coordinating role for the current generation.

Shifting from Partner Projects to Systemic Change

When the EDF began reaching out to prospective corporate partners in the mid ‘80s, no one returned their phone calls.

But that changed after breakthrough projects in the ‘90s with McDonald’s and FedEx, according to Tom Murray, EDF’s Vice President of Corporate Partnerships.

Now industry members call EDF, and Murray said the focus is shifting from relatively small win-win sustainability partnerships to system-wide changes. For example, he credited panelist member and recently retired Walmart CEO Mike Duke (also a Georgia Tech alum) for launching Walmart’s multi-stakeholder initiative requiring corn, wheat and soy suppliers to develop fertilizer management plans.

Murray also pointed to aluminum company Novelis’ work with Ford Motor Company in creating a closed-loop system for manufacturing lightweight, aluminum-body pickup trucks.

Novelis CEO Phil Martens, who also participated in the panel, called the arrangement with Ford a “forever relationship,” and he noted the power that sustainability goals have to create business relationships. For example, the promise of a 100 percent recycled aluminum iPad body apparently was enough to unstick a year’s worth of legal entanglement surrounding non-disclosure agreements and intellectual property rights with Apple.

Likewise John Brock, CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises (and another Georgia Tech alum), noted that partnerships are now standard practice in sustainability work.

“When you have this collaboration between business, NGOs, academic institutions and government, if they’re convinced to do something for sustainability, even if they don’t quite know all the answers, they’ll come up with ways of driving the economics so that it works,” Brock said. “Particularly the younger innovators. The more passionate they are about sustainability, the more creative they are in coming up with economic solutions.”

Respected Leadership Is the Key

CBSS is one of a growing number of centers and institutes dedicated to fueling the sustainability movement within major business schools across the US.

Academic institutions, like corporations, struggle to overcome organizational silos. Interdisciplinary initiatives such as Georgia Tech’s CBSS, the Business and Environment Initiative (BEI) at Harvard Business School, Arizona State University’s Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiatives, or the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute, help bridge the divides between departments while integrating sustainability teaching and research across the curriculum. (Disclosure: I assist both CBSS and BEI with communications strategy.)

However, the opportunity for bridge-building isn’t limited to the universities in which these centers operate.

Because they represent neutral ground, academic institutions are well-positioned to lead pre-competitive sustainability initiatives. Staffed with experienced, well-networked professionals, CBSS and its contemporaries can draw major players to the table from private, government and non-profit sectors.

“We want to be a catalyst for systemic changes around sustainability,” said Howard Connell, managing director of CBSS and a former sustainability lead at Kimberly Clark. “And in doing so, we can make valuable connections amongst our academics, students and partner organizations.

Industry-wide collaborations also promise to speed the transfer of expertise from academia into practice, and open up additional funding for critical research areas. (It’s worth noting here that CBSS is largely funded by the Ray C. Anderson Foundation. Anderson, the founder of Interface and a renowned sustainability pioneer, was also a Georgia Tech grad).

Beyond the Business Curriculum

While CBSS’s primary mission is to bring sustainability to the forefront for students, faculty and partners of the Scheller College, its influence is quickly spreading across the entire Institute.

University faculty recently selected a proposal co-written by CBSS faculty director Beril Toktay that makes sustainability and community engagement the focus of Georgia Tech’s five-year Quality Enhancement Program.

In the months ahead, a university-wide program co-chaired by Toktay will work to embed sustainability deeper into the curriculum of all Colleges within the Institute and to create sustainability-focused service learning and community engagement opportunities for Georgia Tech students.

During the inaugural panel discussion, Toktay said it’s critical for educational institutes to take environmental literacy to heart. She suggests benchmarking what students know about sustainability when they arrive on campus and then measuring how much more they’ve learned upon graduation.

In addition, she wants to inspire students to bring sustainability to their professional lives. “What we need to drive through is the understanding that it’s possible to integrate societal value creation with economic value creation and that graduates can do this every day at their jobs.”

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