University of Southern California

Marshall Net Impact Shows Members Where Sustainability and Business Meet
Business Community Shares Experiences with MBA Students at "Sustainability 501" Event
November 20, 2009 • by Melanie Ciolek

Talking about trash has become "sexy" when it comes to discussing business and sustainability practices. That's what the MBA students who attended USC Marshall Net Impact's recent "Sustainability 501" event discovered. More specifically, they learned about how businesses deal with trash as well as the rapidly growing technologies that are driving changes in how business and consumers think about sustainability.

At the first-annual Net Impact "Sustainability 501" event on October 25, representatives from six organizations -- Wal-Mart, Toyota, Waste Management, AC Propulsion, the Clinton Climate Initiative, and the Los Angeles Mayor's office -- shared their insights into what sustainability means in their respective worlds. Society and Business Lab Founding Director and Management and Organization Professor Adlai Wertman moderated the panel for an audience of nearly 70 students and other guests.

From the automotive sector to retail to municipal government, the answer was clear: sustainability has to financially make sense for businesses to get behind it, and for most that means increasing efficiency and reducing costs.

Aaron Rios, senior public affairs manager for Wal-Mart, outlined his corporation's commitment to sustainability and its goals to become 100% supplied by renewable energy, create zero waste, and sell products that sustain resources and the overall environment. He emphasized Wal-Mart's efforts to create sustainability networks that involve the non-governmental organizations (NGO) and academic communities, including those critical of the corporation in the past, but with whom they are now working to find solutions.

For Ryan McMullen, Environmental Programs Manager for Toyota, and Tom Gage, CEO of AC Propulsion, sustainability is about making mobility through cars a concept that continues to provide benefits in the long run, from the way the cars are produced to the energy resources they require.

During the discussion, David Hodgins (MBA '08), of the Clinton Climate Initiative Energy Efficiency Building Retrofit Program, emphasized that the push for increased efficiency becomes much easier once the potential benefits became "quantifiable"—when an energy simulation can show a company how much money they'll save, the argument for sustainability supports itself. McMullen of Toyota stressed that while they can’t dictate how their dealers operate, they look for opportunities to show them how they can save money by being the "good guy" and implementing recycling programs.

When asked for advice they could offer to MBAs looking to use their education in a "green" industry, the panelists underlined the importance of developing a fluency in the language of energy and sustainability and suggested thinking outside of sectors they might normally consider. Fred Papp of Waste Management encouraged students "to look where the vacuum is." "Trash was not sexy" when he got started, quipped Papp, but now "it's topical and it makes sense" in relation to the energy sector. Alex Fay of the Los Angeles Mayor's office added that "green business is still business" and the demand is growing for a new breed of professionals that will need to be well-versed in the language of environment and sustainability across the board.

Questions for the panelists ranged from their views on the role of carbon offsets to how utility companies play a role in the sustainability debate. Asked what has proven surprisingly difficult or easy in their experience with implementing sustainability, several said the easiest part has been selling the benefits of sustainability, while keeping up with the flow of advances in technology continues to be difficult.

Students in attendance engaged in lively discussion about their interests in sustainability at a reception following the event. Part-time MBA student Veronica Muth said she was encouraged to hear about "business taking the lead on sustainability rather than being reactive."

Marshall Net Impact President and second-year MBA student Andrew Choi noted that changes are occurring in the conversation on sustainability, even within a short period of time. "You're hearing questions be asked that you wouldn't have a few years ago," Choi said, and highlighted other shifts in the way business students have come to think about the role of government regulation when it comes to sustainability.

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.