Student Impact Project:

Developing the ‘Next Tier’ of corporate sustainability leaders

When the World Environment Center (WEC) partnered with the Erb Institute to build out its innovative new “Next Tier” program to equip companies left behind in the sustainability rush, we were excited to take on the challenge. As students with different educational focuses—one of us studying energy and land use policy and the other studying sustainable development in business—our backgrounds complemented each other in the context of this project. We were tasked with refining the Next Tier program’s offerings and financing model. Utilizing direct feedback from WEC’s network of companies and experts alongside desktop research, we created one that better fit WEC’s organizational strengths and catered to the target audience.

The main goal of the Next Tier program is to address the lack of resources available for companies just beginning their transition to a sustainable business model. Typically, these companies struggle to dedicate the time and money necessary to learn about this broad and constantly evolving area, especially if they attempt to do so independently. But if these companies have the right tools, networks, and learning resources, they can begin their transition into sustainability and keep up with the demands of science-based targets and ever-changing regulations. To develop a sustainable global economy, involving companies down the supply chain is vital, and that is exactly what WEC’s Next Tier program aims to accomplish. The Next Tier program ultimately builds a space where networks of these companies can learn from and alongside each other to develop sustainable business solutions. 

From a student perspective, working on the project was incredibly eye-opening. Learning about sustainability practices in a classroom is crucial to understand key issues and solutions in the business and sustainability space, but the real-life application of these practices often looks quite different depending on the economic and cultural context. For example, through speaking with academics in Latin America, we learned more about regional issues that firms often face. Because most Latin American companies are small to medium sized, they often lack the governance structures they need to adapt or the resources to do so. Comparatively, firms in Germany that we spoke to are ahead of changing regulations and have already developed internal governance structures. As students, being able to speak with academics and corporate figures working in other areas of the world provided us a more holistic view of global sustainability, and how these issues might look different in separate areas of the world. At the University of Michigan and with Erb, we have developed an awareness of global sustainability perspectives, and this project enhanced that awareness. 

Pragmatically, we gained key communication and research skills. Through interviews we conducted with subject-matter experts, we not only learned some of the various ways to approach sustainable business model innovation but also gained a perspective on what it is like to be an interviewer instead of an interviewee, which is helpful to reduce pressure during job searches. Also, producing marketing materials intended for businesses rather than average consumers taught us how to pitch innovative ideas to niche business leaders, something we don’t get regular exposure to as students. 

Finding a balance between financial sustainability of a nonprofit program and maximum accessibility for companies interested in participating was the most difficult part of the project. Many target companies had varying needs and budgets, so we catered to that by offering mix-and-match style packages at varying price points to make the program adaptable and administratively possible. Speaking directly to companies both highly experienced and inexperienced in corporate sustainability, supplemented by ideas from forward-thinking academics, gave us the knowledge we needed to synthesize our data into an accessible, cross-sectoral program for the betterment of the planet and its people.