Erb Faculty Director Joe Árvai and I took Erb on the road in November—to India!

India is one of the institute’s priority emerging markets for sustainability impact, and we’ve been working with the India Centre for Responsible Business (CRB) to develop a partnership for research, teaching and business-engagement opportunities. Erb sponsored CRB’s annual “India and Sustainability Standards” conference this year, and Joe and I were asked to speak at the November 14-16 event in Delhi.

The conference brought together some 300 participants from companies, nonprofits, academia, government and multilateral organizations. With nearly 40 plenary and breakout sessions, the discussion covered a broad range of social, environmental, labor and human-rights issues. However, three themes in particular stood out for me from the overall discussion.

First, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) continue to gain momentum, not only among governments and nonprofits, but also among companies. This was never the case with the previous Millennium Development Goals, which were designed and delivered with little input from the private sector. The SDGs provided the basic framework for the three-day conference. Joe built the SDGs into his plenary presentation on better decisions for a better world, and I was a speaker on a plenary panel discussing multi-sector partnerships for SDG implementation.

Speaking of which, implementation was my second takeaway from the conference. Judging from discussion at this and last year’s conference, the dialogue on business sustainability in India is on the verge of cycling past the “Why does this matter?” to the “How do we do it?”, especially among company managers and executives. Of course, all this is easier said than done! There are many examples of companies talking about how their day-to-day business models support this or that SDG. However, the bigger challenge is “additionality”—how to proactively target specific SDGs for impact ahead of time, instead of mapping company impacts to the goals after the fact, and then filling in the gaps with a “sustainability journey.” Joe and I talked about this in the session we did on sustainability executive education, in which we outlined Erb’s management tools and decision-making frameworks for sustainability strategy.

Third, cross-sector partnerships were a central theme throughout the CRB conference. Erb teamed up with CRB, Aston School of Management and the Indian Institute of Management to conduct a roundtable on business-academic collaboration during the conference. Deep, rigorous research was the central collaboration opportunity discussed, with the caveat that it’s often a challenge to align academic research questions with companies’ practical—and immediate—needs for business solutions today. Erb will continue this discussion through future roundtables in this series, which began with our inaugural roundtable at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September.

On the last night of the conference, Erb convened an alumni event with Erb and other University of Michigan alumni. Joe and I gave updates on the institute, our partner schools, and the rising profile of sustainability at U-M. We and the attendees ended up talking about what’s happening in Ann Arbor as well as what’s happening in India—especially the apocalyptic air pollution that week in Delhi, which had been top of mind to everyone in attendance. A small group of Erb alumni will meet early in the new year to explore whether there’s an opportunity—big or small—for our alumni to contribute to a solution.