SGE B2B Trek 2013: The Business of Change (Part 1)

by Christine Rossi, MBA ‘15 (1/13/14)

Christine Rossi, MBA ‘15

The SGE club travels from Burlington, VA to Boston, MA to visit a diverse set of organizations working to address environmental and social needs. Part 1

It was so cold and yet so warm.  Our 530 mile journey began with Winter Storm ‘Electra’ but quickly warmed up with the open doors and positive impact companies we encountered.  Our champion trek leader Rob Collier, MBA ‘14 managed to squeeze in 14 company visits and 2 alumni networking receptions into four days.  At Johnson, leading a trek is one of the many opportunities where we are able to test our leadership skills and Rob made us all proud.

As a Sustainable Global Enterprise (SGE) club member, it cannot be denied that we are an eclectic group.  Our members’ interests range in focus from renewables, finance, consulting, and social investing.  This trip had something for everyone and helped us all to understand the breadth of current trends in the industry. 

Logos 1Renewables

The cost, availability, and means of sourcing renewable energy is rapidly changing.  From our visits to All Earth and Harvest Power we learned about the challenges and opportunities of fluctuating pricing and rapidly evolving technology. At ENERNOC we saw how their customers are recognizing the bottom line impact of energy demand monitoring.  A common trend among these companies was the use of collective contracts to offset the initial costs of infrastructure.  Whether it is a neighborhood sharing land for solar trackers, or manufacturing facilities turning off machinery that is not in use at strategic times to help reduce black outs – the ability to work collectively allows for the greatest impact.  There is high demand for businesses that can find these opportunities for shared energy use to establish a renewable grid and to help reduce demand.

logos 2Energy Efficient Products and Innovation

Rethinking what’s already been done is no easy task but some innovative companies are taking the initiative to lead change and help reframe industry practices.   At Seventh Generation, we saw how they are working to improve products with a Cradle to Cradle mindset.  By being a first mover, they are helping to instigate industry-wide change in products and packaging.  At Digital Lumens, innovative lighting technology and tracking is helping to reduce energy demand and increase efficiency.  Then we learned how to approach problems from a human-centered perspective at IDEO.  By getting out in the field, talking to users, and collaborating across disciplines, they are able to get to the root of problems to develop products and services that are desirable by users, technically feasible, and commercially viable.

Alternative Business Models

On this trek we were reminded that success is not only defined in monetary terms.  logos 3The companies we visited had positive impact as their gauge for achievement and some models went beyond the typical corporation structure.  To take the name of a restaurant in Philadelphia, Ben & Jerry’s is “More Than Just Ice Cream.”  They are first and foremost a social action and political company.  By supporting local businesses, farmers, and social campaigns they are driven by the desire to improve the lives of people.  Green Mountain Coffee Roasters is Brewing a Better World through a resilient supply chain, sustainable products, and thriving communities.  We saw how year by year they continually work to improve the sustainability of their products and supply chain. Finally at King Arthur Flour we learned about their history and transition from a private company to an ESOP (Employee Stock Ownership Plan).  By being an employee-owned company, everyone works together to ensure the company’s success – and it shows.  They have been B-Corp certified since 2007 and continue to raise the standards for their community goals.  Social impact has led to the growing success of these companies and their products taste great too.

Through these visits our eyes were opened wide.  It is important to remember that as future business leaders, sustainability is not an industry - it is inherent in every decision we make.  Should we source our materials locally or from afar?  Is success a certain percentage gain in profit or is it impacting more lives than the previous year?  Do we invest now for efficient energy sources that will impact our balance sheet in the short run?  I left the trek feeling encouraged that there are so many companies out there making a difference knowing that my peers at Johnson will someday be making these decisions at their organizations.  Throw on the shades because our future is looking bright!