As part of Erb’s Cool Projects, I recently attended a Certified Sustainability (CSR) Practitioner Training offered by the Centre for Sustainability and Excellence. It offered a glimpse into the challenges that sustainability professionals must face on a daily basis.

Welcome to Texas

As I entered the hotel, my eyes were immediately drawn to vivid paintings on the wall: romanticized depictions of oil rigs. Seemingly every room in the hotel contained these sights. The juxtaposition of these paintings and the sustainability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) training I was there for was perhaps fitting for such a conference being held in Houston. Beyond the paintings and what I found to be wonderful hospitality (the Texas state motto is “friendship”), one of the biggest indications that I was in Texas was the two large pieces of steak and iced tea served to everyone for lunch.

The morning the training started, I was warmly welcomed by Nick (or Nikos), the man leading the sessions, and then we each introduced our neighbor to the group. The wide range of professions, including insurance, janitorial services, chemicals, green buildings, silver mining, and even oil and gas, surprised me for a sustainability training, but it provided broad perspectives and insightful discussions.

To learn about sustainability, it was critical to first define what sustainability is, and perhaps more important, what it is not. Sustainability is often thought of as environmental efforts, and CSR is considered philanthropy. But sustainability and CSR often are one and the same and are quite distinct from philanthropy—and much more than just environmental responsibility.

At their core, sustainability and CSR are about understanding your impacts on stakeholders and both recognizing opportunities and minimizing risks. Sustainability is a focus on long-term goals and profitability—it is a refusal to sacrifice the future well-being of a company for short-term gains. Overemphasis on the short term typically leads to unsustainable practices. From this perspective, sustainability extends far beyond the environment, to workers’ satisfaction and safety, community engagement and much more. It also means sustainability is different for every company.

The New Farm to Table

Confusion around what sustainability is creates challenges to garner support and funding from the C-suite. During the training, we focused on strategies to increase support and reviewed successful case studies on sustainability. Three important strategies are:

  1. Start with the risks: Sustainability should be mitigating or eliminating future risks.
  2. Tailor it: Focus on what is important to the company. Highlight how the initiative will benefit key stakeholders and position the company for long-term success.
  3. Measure it: When speaking to executives, it is important to relate any initiatives to concrete numbers and expectations. If you do not find a way to measure an initiative’s impact, you are unlikely to get support.

We went through several examples in which the lack of a sustainable approach proved costly for a company. One example that stuck with me was how IKEA has become a leader in sustainable cotton (by reducing use of pesticides, water and fertilizers at the cotton farms that IKEA sources from). This topic led me to propose the slogan that this is the new “farm to table.” While I wondered why no one responded to possibly the greatest pun of my life, a discerning conversation into the merits of IKEA’s initiative began. The participants debated the importance of cotton to IKEA, how big a part of its supply chain cotton is, and whether this was“greenwashing,” to give the perception of sustainability. (Post-hoc research confirmed that IKEA is a huge purchaser of cotton, and its sustainable cotton initiative has provided clear business value, increasing margins for farmers and providing IKEA a more resilient and reliable supply chain.)

Moving Forward

The next step is applying these lessons. For most participants, this means returning to their companies, engaging stakeholders, pushing the sustainability of their company and reporting the results. As a student, the path is less clear.

We discussed in training how academic institutions tend to place less emphasis on sustainability and rarely publish sustainability reports (although the University of Michigan does publish reports through Planet Blue and the Graham Sustainability Institute). Still, sustainability at academic institutions is likely to have substantial value: It can be particularly relevant for professional degrees, such as MBAs. Employers such as Unilever have found their sustainability reputation to be a driving factor attracting potential employees. If sustainability is a valuable characteristic at companies with highly touted jobs, it will also be a valuable trait for institutions with an interest in placing their students in such jobs. Finding ways to better engage MBA candidates at Ross School of Business in sustainability initiatives around the university is an important opportunity that can provide valuable experience to current students, attractive opportunities to future students and additional benefits to employers and the community.