After finishing the bulk of Johnson’s core curriculum, I was pleased to attend the Cornell Business Impact Symposium, co-hosted by the Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise, on March 25. I came to Johnson to transition from the non-profit sector, so anything with the words “Business Impact” in the title tends to get my attention. More importantly, as a student in the Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion, I had my eye out for key insights that I could utilize during my immersion experience.
The news from the sustainability front is both good and bad. We’ll start with the good news. I’ll close with why it is so important that my immersion, and this conference, exists.
The food was spectacular
Insight #1: The current administration doesn’t impede progress if a company is setting long-term sustainability goals.
During the morning session titled Using the Power of Technology to Change the world, Lisa Ann Pinkerton asked a panel of representatives from GE, AT&T, and Corning, Inc., how the Trump administration affects the sustainability goals at each of their companies. The answer was a resounding, “it doesn’t.”
Hilary Lashley Renison, MBA ’09, noted that GE doesn’t change their internal goals and policies in response to who is in office. They inform and educate the administration.
Amath Gomis, MRP ’11, senior sustainability manager at AT&T, said: “We have already set goals for 2020 and 2025, etc. Those don’t change with the administration.” He also highlighted the increase in activist investing. Investors are asking companies for their sustainability reports, especially if they aren’t confident that the government will be driving that accountability. In Gomis’s words, in light of the recent deprioritization of environmental protection, climate change action, and EPA funding, “the private sector is stepping in and doing it on its own.” Being accountable to shareholders these days means answering these concerns.
Linda Jolly, vice president and corporate secretary for securities and governance at Corning Inc., also reminded us that Corning’s CEO, Wendell Weeks, is on the board of CEOs who are advising Trump regarding his Manufacturing Jobs Initiative. This hopefully means that Corning will have a voice in policy moving forward.
Morning panel: "Using the Power of Technology to Change the World"
Insight #2: We need a business case for demanufacturing.
According to the EPA, “an undetermined amount of used electronics is shipped from the United States and other developed countries to developing countries that lack the capacity to reject imports or to handle these materials appropriately. Without proper standards and enforcement, improper practices may result in public health and environmental concerns.” An attendee asked AT&T how they ensured that this didn’t happen. Unfortunately, there is no financial incentive to ensure that e-waste is handled properly.
In 2010, President Obama charged three federal agencies to address this problem, and they released a National Strategy for Electronics Stewardship report, which details the US government’s plan to enhance the management of electronic waste. But where is the business case? Gomis was quick to point out, “how does recycling, which costs the company money, improve AT&T’s business in the medium and long term?” He noted that companies that once ran e-waste recycling sites have gone out of business. In the absence of government regulation to enforce management of e-waste, there is no business incentive for a cell phone manufacturer to gather up old products and “de-manufacture” them responsibly. Even if there was a financial incentive, how can a company control the disposal of its product years after it has been in the hands of the consumer?
Demanufacturing is a big giant problem. Or, as we say in business school, a big giant opportunity.
Insight #3: It depends on who is in the C-suite.
If there’s not a senior level person supporting it, it’s not going to get done. In the complex world of business, executive sponsorship may not always be sufficient, but I agree that it is necessary. Sending sustainability-minded leaders into the business world is a crucial part of the mission of Johnson. Get good at influencing without authority. Get good at making the business case for sustainability. The Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise can help. Remember that the business case for sustainability doesn’t always rely on the end consumer. There are other stakeholders, specifically shareholders and potential investors, that will be asking for your company’s carbon emissions data and philanthropic activities. Want the quick version? Sustainability isn’t a “nice to have”—this is now the cost of doing business.
Remember, you don’t have to be the person with the CSR title to make an impact. As Georgia Maloney, MBA ’16, noted: “you can be a person in a traditional role, in a traditional company, and still have an impact on corporate social responsibility.” Be that person.
Afternoon panel: "Beyond Greenwashing: Balancing Branding and Corporate Social Responsibility"