John Gardner: Lesson Plan

Source:  John Gardner, Seattle Business Magazine, December 2011. Knowing how to make your business ‘green’ requires a commitment to sustainability education. John Gardner is a WCTA Board Member, is dean of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, and has more than 20 years of experience in the sustainability field.

John Gardner, Bainbridge Graduate Institute

Intrapreneurs—people who act like entrepreneurs inside large organizations—often serve as the catalysts for sustainability initiatives. Those profit-making breakthroughs increasingly come from innovative ways of coping with environmental, social, ethical and political issues. Collectively termed “sustainability,” it requires practice and doesn’t happen overnight. Employees can gain a competitive edge by educating themselves in sustainability, whether through an MBA program or a course in sustainable businesses.

Major corporations like UPS, EMC, DuPont, AT&T, Kellogg, PG&E and Coca-Cola have made dramatic changes to their business practices by creating high-ranking sustainability executives. The trend is also supported by the increasing number of companies producing corporate social responsibility reports and the rising number of sustainability degree programs. More than ever before, major companies and entrepreneurial ventures are finding success by embracing sustainability—environmental and social responsibility—as a core business strategy.

The Green Economy represents more than $230 billion a year in sales of socially and environmentally responsible products and $2.2 trillion in investments. It was one of the few industries to survive the recession without taking a big hit. Still, skepticism about being “green” persists.

Pursuing greater profits through practices genuinely improving sustainability requires deep skill. As distinguished from “greenwashing”—promoting the perception that a company is environmentally conscientious—a commitment to sustainability takes sophisticated business management to make it work, thus creating a need for sustainability experts. Local companies like Boeing and REI have realized this and sent members of their corporate social responsibility teams to take courses in sustainability.

In large corporations, sustainability experts often appear as intrapreneurs—a term coined by Gifford Pinchot, president of the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. They develop new and innovative ideas for their companies and also challenge industry norms. These intrapreneurs are the keys to furthering sustainability programs in the corporate world. In fact, the global competitiveness of many American firms has suffered from a lack of internal renewal and reinvention.

No matter how a sustainability program begins or how large or small a company is, the goals tend to be the same: to create programs that help contribute to the bottom line responsibly.

Sustainable-business courses prepare students to create and manage dynamic enterprises that build a better today and tomorrow. They also supply a new generation of innovators and leaders with the tools needed to shape a corporate culture supportive of sustainability goals.

Most traditional MBA programs have begun to incorporate into their curricula classes on sustainable business. A 2010 survey by Beyond Grey Pinstripes, a business education initiative of the Aspen Institute, discovered that the number of business schools requiring a course on business and society issues had doubled since 2001.

Sustainable MBA programs dig deeper to discuss how and why ecological and social sustainability practices are a necessity in every company. Concentrations in key sectors provide students the opportunity to analyze challenges and implement on-the-ground solutions for their industries.

Forward-thinking companies, business leaders and middle managers all recognize this trend, but they are sometimes hesitant to take action or don’t know where to start. Higher education and continued learning are smart investments for businesses even in a down economy. As executives learn new skills and apply them to real-world issues, they’re able to make informed business decisions and find profitable solutions that support their company’s sustainability goals.

In the past few years, there’s been growth in consumer awareness and understanding of sustainability, which has led to the growing market for sustainable businesses, products and services. Consequently, now is the time for companies and individuals to take a step forward and recognize sustainability as an innovation opportunity.

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