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April 22, 2009

Why Business Schools Need to Be Green

Christopher Baker ’09
Co-founder, Green Business Club
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Earth Day 2009 is here, and if you’re a business student or a practitioner, you might want to pay attention.

Long considered the province of treehuggers and other warm-hearted-but-corporately-challenged individuals, Earth Day in the 21st century has taken on a new importance. And unlike previous corporate excursions in the environmental realm during the ’70s and early ’80s, this time around the movement is unlikely to be subject to the whim of oil prices. Environmental progress touches a wide array of policy issues dear to the hearts of both liberal and conservative politicians: energy security, job creation, climate change and human health. In other words, sustainability and environmental issues are here to stay.

Last week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a finding that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions endanger “the health and welfare of current and future generations.” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson cited the report as “the first formal recognition by the U.S. government of the threats posed by climate change.” The finding has far-reaching significance for U.S. business — whether through EPA regulation or congressional legislation, change is coming soon.

While some of the world’s leading organizations have made meaningful progress on their environmental impact, there remains a general lack of expertise on the way that business intersects with the environment. A focus on environmental issues appears likely to follow the same adoption path that the Internet experienced in the mid-to-late ’90s: from novelty, to practice by a few early adopters, to acknowledged competitive advantage, to business-as-usual.

Today, some of the world’s largest and best-run companies, including DuPont, GE, Sony, 3M and Coca-Cola, have already recognized the reality that their industry landscapes will be profoundly impacted by a greater focus on the environment. They have responded to these pending changes by devoting substantial resources to develop expertise on sustainable issues and how they can benefit from improving their environmental standing.

Given the direction in which these industry bellwethers are moving, business schools must start paying attention. The limited supply of managers educated in both business and the environment creates enormous opportunities for those students coming out of school with knowledge of both these areas.

Columbia Business School has been quick to recognize this, responding with a number of theoretical and practical learning opportunities for its students. Course offerings such as Finance & Sustainability, Green Marketing and New Developments in Energy Markets focus specifically on how students can maximize organizational performance in light of environmental opportunities. Practical experience in the form of cutting-edge programming and activities has been supplied by the recently formed Green Business Club, which had a membership of almost 200 students in its first year on campus.

Some examples of the Club’s recent events and advocacy include:

  • “The Future of Business is Green” event with executives from Goldman Sachs, the Clinton Climate Initiative, the NRDC and McKinsey
  • Unveiling of the UN’s Green Jobs Report
  • PepsiCo Sustainability Tour
  • Clean Tech Month
  • LEED platinum campaign
  • CFL lightbulb exchange
  • Reusable happy hour steins
  • Green Columbia initiatives, including increased recycling capacity and decreased paper waste

Through events and activities such as these, Columbia Business School is creating leaders who truly understand the importance of environmental impacts on business performance. While more apprehensive managers may think it unwise to divert their attention to environmental issues until absolutely necessary, savvy executives will see the advantages of being first-movers. For institutions with the mandate of preparing forward-thinking, strategic leaders, now is the time to start focusing on environmentally sustainable business. And that starts here, at business school.

Photo courtesy of the Green Business Club