Charlene Zietsma joins the Erb Institute as Faculty Director

Charlene Zietsma joined the Erb Institute as Faculty Director this January. She joined the University of Michigan as the Max McGraw Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at SEAS and at the Ross School of Business in January, 2023. She previously held appointments at Pennsylvania State University, York University (Toronto), Western University and the University of Victoria.

Zietsma brings a wealth of experience, passion and commitment to foster collaboration among diverse stakeholders.Her first objective at the helm of the Erb Institute is to strengthen the ties that bind the Erb community so that alumni, students, corporate and nonprofit partners and other Friends of Erb can seamlessly collaborate, learn from each other, and collectively contribute to a more sustainable future. Zietsma says:   

“The Erb community of nearly 800 alumni plus current dual degree and undergraduate Erb Fellow students, as well as partners and friends, is an amazing group of engaged, passionate people that support each other in the sustainability work we do. Whether for ideas, best practices, network contacts or moral support, Erbers can count on each other to lend a hand, and we want to improve Erb’s support of strong connections among community members.” 

The Erb Institute will also continue to extend the thought leadership that emerges from the Erb community by convening cross-sectoral conversations to enhance innovation around sustainability concerns such as decarbonization, water, and social justice.  

Zietsma will also lead the Erb Institute’s focus on the evolving sustainability labor market, and through that, influence curriculum change and improve career connections for students, alumni and employers, and co-curricular and work experiences for Erb students. 

Zietsma’s academic research has focused on system change and social innovation – identifying barriers to change and the strategies change agents can use to get beyond those barriers to move toward more sustainable and socially just practices and structures. Because behavior change is needed to change systems, we need the entrepreneurial action of individual change agents, but we also need collective action, she says.

“Collective action is now at the forefront of business sustainability”, Zietsma said. While in the past, social movements and other stakeholders had to work really hard to get business to pay attention to sustainability issues, we now see a shift to much more collaborative approaches. Businesses are understanding that they have to take a position on sustainability issues,” and they are willing to sit down with multiple stakeholders to figure out what they can do better.

One example from Zietsma’s work is a water governance process that began after a forest fire razed 239 homes in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia following a drought. The fast-growing region combined tourism, development, agriculture, mining, forestry and other sectors with a strong First Nations (Indigenous) presence and critical ecological resources such as salmon-spawning streams. People representing these disparate interests had to figure out how to allocate water. “They got together and met once a month for a year, initially just to understand each other. Each person had a chance to tell their story, what water meant to them, why they needed it and when” Zietsma explains.

“During these sessions, they came to understand each other and trust each other, even though they had completely opposing views of what water meant,” Zietsma says. For example, a developer suggested putting a price on water, but First Nations people objected on spiritual grounds and farmers objected saying they would never get the access they needed if a price were imposed. The stakeholders then “set up task forces, conducted joint research, and gradually defined a governance model for water that they all agreed on.” 

Across many settings, collective action also enables innovation, Zietsma points out. It can help “create an ecosystem around particular issues that allows diverse groups to work together, including entrepreneurs and large businesses that need innovation, user groups and affected stakeholders that can help refine innovations before they are launched, and regulators that can ensure a fit with the regulatory environment. These groups can connect to create new solutions and enable their implementation,” Zietsma says. Collaboration also helps ensure that equity and justice implications are considered.

After all, Zietsma says, “We don’t have individual problems in sustainability—we have collective problems, and we need to work collectively to solve them.”

Zietsma’s research has also focused on industry standards. Setting standards for social and environmental issues is important because it sets a floor that no one should go below, she says. “There’s still room to innovate above that, but it brings everyone along to at least this base level of response to social and environmental issues. And that levels the playing field, so it’s harder for one firm to undercut other firms by exploiting the environment and acting poorly socially,” she says. 

Zietsma teaches two courses, each with a practical focus. The first, Entrepreneurship and Innovation for Sustainability at SEAS, aims “to empower students with the skills and tools to tackle sustainability challenges through their own ventures or through innovation in larger organizations, companies, governments or not-for-profits,” she explains.

The second course, Navigating Change at Ross, equips students as change agents, focusing on sustainability challenges as the terrain. It delves into how students can instigate change in their own departments, companies or organizations? It also emphasizes collaboration with other change agents to bring about broader, impactful change. “Students acquire a change toolbox, and the skills to influence behavior, reshape structures, and establish systems that support more sustainable practices,” Zietsma says.

These skills are vital for future leaders “because the future does not look like the past,” Zietsma says. “We need entrepreneurs and change agents to guide us through this evolving future. Systems and people often get stuck in the status quo, and the status quo will kill us.” She believes that change agents and entrepreneurs who can see past status quo barriers and persuade others to embrace change are essential to lead us toward a positive transformation toward a sustainable future.