Tips from the Field: A Survival Guide for Sustainability Professionals

Last Monday, CBEY and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development hosted a conversation on how MBA programs might train future sustainability professionals. The event was held in conjunction with the School of Management’s Global Faculty Network Week on Sustainability Leadership and moderated by Professor Brad Gentry. Three seasoned panelists, before a crowd of global business school professors and administrators, as well as a smattering of budding MBAs, shared their wisdom from years of experience in sustainability leadership roles.

Dr. Terry Yosie, President and CEO of the World Environment Center cited the importance of Disruption; Christine Bader (SOM ’00), author of The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil, called out her experience with Failure; and Kevin Moss, Head of Net Good, BT, described for the audience the essential role of Resilience.

For future MBAs attending the panel in search of a concrete skillset, perhaps a few words to draw on for the next resume update, these ideas may have felt slightly abstract. But the discussion still offered inspiration for any emerging professional willing to take on the challenging frontier that sustainability presents.


Terry Yosie described this era as one “of unprecedented change.” Our world is increasingly connected, and with these connections comes complexity. A business is now forced to consider its impacts well beyond the scope of its balance sheet. The private sector hires social responsibility and sustainability professionals to help adapt to new standards. However, Yosie believes that both “the promise and the shortcoming” of the sustainability field is its ability to identify a system-level changer—a feat with great potential, but one that it has yet to accomplish. Someone, or some new idea, needs to emerge that will be disruptive enough to cause a momentous shift in the way we do business. Yosie suggested that MBA programs can foster this productive disruption by turning curricula away from the shareholder value model and toward a model that reconnects with companies’ corporate charters, which are often built upon a broad social purpose.


When Christine Bader reflects on her work trying to make BP a better global citizen, she sees failure. After years of heading innovative projects that helped BP tread more lightly in neighboring communities, Bader witnessed the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and felt her efforts had been in vain. From this experience, and from exploring the work of her professional peers, Bader has maintained motivation by acknowledging that incremental change, though seemingly negligible to the outside world, often requires a tremendous amount of internal alignment. We must take heart that any work aimed at moving the needle is good work.

That said, there are identifiable tools that will make this kind of work more effective. For instance, the level at which sustainability is integrated into a corporation needs to be standardized; one way to do this is by developing a Universal Declaration of Corporate Social Responsibility, much like the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which has acted as a guideline for corporations trying to attain an acceptable internal standard for the human impact of their operations.


Kevin Moss addressed a fear that many in the sustainability field are likely to face: how do you know if you are actually making the changes you set out to? Is your company instead treating you as a “pressure release valve” that allows it to go about business as usual under the banner of sustainability? According to Moss, in order to be a successful sustainability professional, you must have the resilience to address this constant challenge; this can require pushing hard—sometimes making your position an uncomfortable one to be in. Moss stressed that sustainability must come from a value-based belief in it, which needs to be integrated deep in a company, ideally by the individuals inside of it. Moss offered a nice bridge between the words of Yosie and Bader: until that deep, value-based integration happens, disruptive sustainability professionals are going to meet resistance to even incremental changes. They will need to be resilient to continue on their path.

Yosie, Bader, and Moss do not have easy jobs. They will be the first to admit that sustainability is hard, far from a fluffy field for the meek. The profession forces you to ride the pendulum between optimism and pessimism, and those who succeed learn to draw inspiration from both ends of the emotional spectrum.

A full recording of the panel discussion, “The Skills Needed to Lead on Sustainability at 2020,” can be viewed online here.

Sarah Bolthrunis is an MBA/MESc joint-degree student (‘16) at Yale School of Management and Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her academic and professional interests focus on coastal adaptation to climate change impacts. Specifically, her summer research is in assessing the economic risks faced by coastal energy infrastructure due to sea level rise and storm surge. In her free time, Sarah enjoys marathon training and vegan nutrition.

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Dare To Go Zero

The choice between filling the land with garbage, or “landfilling,” and recovering resources from our trash sounds like an easy one. A preference for resource recovery seems even more obvious given the land-deficient world we live in. But reality seldom favors the obvious. The city of Austin, Texas, where I’m working as an Alcoa Foundation fellow this summer, diverts only 31 percent of its waste, leaving 69 percent to be landfilled.

With urban landfills reaching capacity as quickly as they are—available landfills have declined from 5,812 in 1991 to 1,908 in 2011—waste disposal costs are exorbitant, and rising. This increase in landfilling costs is a bittersweet problem. On the one hand, people have to pay more to discard their waste, which is especially taxing in tough economic times. On the other hand, higher prices can serve as a motivation to move toward resource recovery as opposed to waste disposal.

Austin is an exception to the trend of rising prices. The city still experiences low landfilling costs that provide little incentive to move people towards recycling. In such a scenario, education and enforcement, in that order are the best bet for the city to shoot up its diversion rates. Because enforcement does not make sense until the message of recycling has reached people loudly and clearly, public outreach is a key underlying step. To this point, Austin Resource Recovery (ARR), the waste management and resource recovery department of the city, has conducted a variety of outreach campaigns over the past five years, and especially since the 2011 adoption of its Zero Waste Master Plan. One of these campaigns is Dare To Go Zero—perhaps the most creative outreach and citizen engagement efforts around recycling devised by any municipality in the country.

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 10.21.09 AMDare To Go Zero was a weekly reality TV show featured on Austin’s local channel 6 and on YouTube. Hosted by an ARR employee, the show aired for five weeks in the spring of 2011 and drew a wide audience—over 7,000 views on YouTube alone, and about 63,000 total online impressions. The show dared four Austin families to reduce their trash by diverting it to recycling and composting and, through this, strove to increase Austinites’ awareness about how to reach zero waste and avoid contamination of the recycling stream. Out of 52 applicants, eight families were chosen for an on camera audition, from which the final four participants were selected. Every episode included a “dare” that tested the families on their knowledge of waste reduction, recycling, and composting; the winning teams received a prize each week. The families also participated in weekly recycling and composting classes run by ARR that provided information about waste reduction. Each episode concluded with a weigh-in of the waste generated over the preceding week by each of the four families. At the end of the fifth episode, the family that reduced its waste by the largest percentage won a home improvement kit worth $2,000.

The efforts were recognized throughout the country and the Austin received appreciation emails and calls from several municipalities. Cities such as Irvine, CA and Ventura, CA wrote to ARR with queries to replicate the show in their municipalities. The International Association of Business Communicators awarded Dare To Go Zero the 2011 Silver Quill Award of Merit in the category of Social Responsibility.

Dare To Go Zero proved an excellent tool of community outreach with a potential to be replicated worldwide. It is one of the many measures adopted by the city to achieve its zero-waste goals and demonstrates an interesting lever of behavioral change. It also has the capacity to produce neighborhood recycling and composting mentors, with the families that participated serving as a kind of lighthouse to drive community-level recycling initiatives and mobilize the public.

This is a critical time, with municipalities around the country designing and implementing zero-waste goals. Theoretically, it may seem like a simple shift, but it is surprising how challenging correct recycling can be. Even with moves toward single stream recycling, and even given rising costs, the task of truly getting it right continues to be a burden. Public outreach and education is therefore imperative for cities aiming to bump up their diversion rates. One good approach may be for U.S. cities to dare to Dare to Go Zero.

Snigdha Garg is a master’s student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Her studies focus on urban sustainability and resilience planning. This summer she is working with Austin Resource Recovery to improve the city’s recycling rate in accordance with their zero waste goals.

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Deep in the Bins: A Look at Small Business Recycling Practices

I never thought that it would be easy to get small businesses recycling. A task like this requires more than simply distributing blue bins and registering businesses with recycling haulers. Through a fellowship with the Alcoa Foundation this summer, I’m experiencing the challenges first-hand.

GreenovateThough the city does not measure it, Boston’s commercial recycling rate is known to pale in comparison to its mediocre residential recycling rate of 19 percent. Anecdotally, local waste experts and businesses estimate that less than half of all businesses in Boston do any recycling at all, and those that do may only engage in periodic, material-specific recycling.

At the same time, the City of Boston has limited authority over commercial recycling practices. While the city manages residential waste contracts, businesses are left to their own devices. There is no universal approach to helping businesses recycle. This summer, I’m looking to change that.

I recently hit the pavement and spoke to store owners from Allston to Jamaica Plain and (almost) all neighborhoods between to enroll businesses in a recycling co-op pilot designed to reduce each businesses’ overall waste costs while increasing recycling rates in their neighborhoods.

The extent of the logistical challenges that reared their ugly heads was stunning. Of the dozens of business owners I’ve met, no two waste processes are the same. It seems that every owner has a personal story behind his or her waste practice, and the stories speak volumes about the savvy of different business owners, specific limitations within each neighborhood, persuasion of the customer base, and environmental awareness of the managers.

Consider the case of the Ill-Informed Manager. Just days ago I spoke with the manager of a popular Boston liquor store. Almost all of his store’s waste is cardboard—a material most recycling haulers will pick up at minimal cost because of its high resale value. With a trash bill of roughly $500 per month, this manager is paying over five times what he would pay a recycler to have the load hauled away. So one must wonder: how can Boston improve its channels of waste management education?

Next, we have the Cost-Conscious Owner. A South Boston bakery that has all the trappings of a conscientious vegan restaurant—bright walls, hipster art, chalkboard menus—does not recycle or compost despite its clear appeal to a green customer base. The barista, in slight embarrassment, told me that the manager simply does not want to pay for those services. If even the granola businesses won’t cover the cost of recycling, does a values argument for recycling have any standing?

I also met the Space-Constrained Manager, a pizza shop owner who prioritizes store space over nearly everything else. With no alley access for waste storage, she has daily trash and bi-weekly recycling pick-ups; she wishes she had more space for waste storage so she could cut costs by reducing the number of pick-ups per week. Though its historic city plan means narrow streets and few alleys, Boston is not unique in this sense. So how can a scalable program address the varied space challenges in urban areas?

Finally, the At-Home Recycler: down the street from the pizza shop, a home goods store owner opts to take her waste and recycling home in her car every day to deposit it in the residential waste stream. She stockpiles her cardboard waste in the store’s basement and, three times per year, a friend with a pick-up truck takes it all to an unknown location. With such niche approaches to waste management, how can the city measure commercial recycling rates?

These stories represent only a sliver of the vast array of waste approaches that businesses have adopted throughout Boston. Each store has its own bottom line, space constraints, and operating priorities that will trump recycling initiatives with conflicting requirements or considerations. It is clear that the challenge is to develop a program flexible enough to meet the myriad needs of each business, but also universal enough to be duplicated in a variety of industries and locations.

While some ideas have been put forth—the co-op, for instance—a few weeks on the street have offered me an important insight. In practice, the challenge is not so much the grand structure of a program, but it is the block-by-block, business-by-business flexibility of whatever program gets put in place. For a universal recycling plan to succeed it must be customizable for a wide range of priority sets and waste streams; we must find a way to aggregate all of these micro-problems into a single solution to the macro-problem: Boston’s low commercial recycling diversion rates.

Maryrose Myrtetus is an MBA student at The Yale School of Management. She studies the intersection between business practices and public policy as well as the application of the principles of innovation to entrenched societal challenges. This summer she is working with Greenovate Boston to improve commercial recycling rates by building a scalable, market-based co-op program. Outside of work she enjoys running along the Charles River.

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“Having a redefined understanding of the true value of the organization is paramount for insuring that businesses are successful.”
– Rodney Irwin, Managing Director – Redefining Value & Education, World Business Council on Sustainable Development

Scale Up, this year’s U.S. Business Council on Sustainable Development conference at Yale, started with a stimulating question: why is scaling up so damn hard? Participants from the business community and academia articulated a few possibilities: there are too few change agents inside big corporations; perhaps we just aren’t innovative enough; or maybe we lack the necessary emotional intelligence tactics. While all of these discussions offered answers, I found that a major bottleneck to scaling up became evident during the session, “Measurement, Valuation, and Integrated Reporting.” The fact is, a company needs clear, consistent measurement and reporting to effectively scale up.

The session began with a global perspective, presented by Rodney Irwin of the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD), who joined remotely from Paris. The good news, he noted, is that issues of sustainability and social impact have climbed up the business agenda. A study by the professional services firm KPMG found that in 2012-2013 the 100 largest global companies across 10 industry sectors (and their associated corporate foundations) invested, on average, the equivalent of 2.5 percent of their pre-tax profits in social and environmental programs. That said, only 20 percent of these companies have quantified metrics for measuring the impacts of these programs, making it difficult to appreciate the value of their efforts. The old management adage “What gets measured gets managed” holds true here. When managers need to select which programs to continue and scale, how are they going to decide? Should they look at inputs and outputs, or at outcomes and impacts?

Reporting MattersThe same applies for what is typically considered the core of a business. Business activities do not happen in a vacuum, so measuring and reporting only the financials omits part of the whole picture. This is where integrated reporting comes in. The WBCSD has begun discussions to consolidate existing efforts around integrated reporting and to develop a common understanding and application of the concept. Their recently launched “Redefining Value” initiative, for example, measures natural and social assets and costs as a complement to financial metrics. This will help managers make better business decisions based on a fuller picture of costs and benefits.

Natalie Allan Teear, of PwC, followed Irwin with a national perspective, walking the audience through the U.S. landscape of sustainability and integrated reporting. She highlighted the principle of materiality—the information needs of a reasonable investor—in the context of environmental and social issues. She also discussed the role of the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) in establishing sustainability accounting standards for publicly-listed U.S. corporations. The SASB develops industry-specific metrics for sustainability that can be used in company filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Work is now underway for standards in three new sectors: transportation, services, and resource transformation.

Teear also demonstrated PwC’s Total Impact Measurement and Management (TIMM) framework, which provides a holistic view of an organization’s value-creation. TIMM looks beyond simply inputs and outputs, taking into account the outcome and impacts of activities. It was created to assist companies as they transition to integrated thinking and integrated reporting.

Teear’s presentation closed out with a well-known example of corporate leadership in this space: PUMA and its Environmental Profit and Loss Account (EP&L), which was designed to put a monetary value on the environmental footprint across the value chain—from the production of raw materials to the point of sale. The EP&L is used throughout PUMA as a tool for strategic decision-making, risk management, and transparency.

Erica Guerra from Holcim, a global building materials company, finished the session on an optimistic note. Holcim just released its Corporate Sustainable Development Report for 2013. It is not an integrated report per se, but it successfully shows how to incorporate sustainability impact indicators in day-to-day operations. Instead of simply looking back at past achievements, the report contains Holcim’s sustainability strategy, the Sustainable Development Ambition 2030. This strategy details Holcim’s aspiration to generate one-third of their revenue from the portfolio of Sustainability Enhanced Solutions, and it sets intermediate targets across three focus areas: Climate, Resources, and Communities. It is an excellent example of a company reevaluating its solutions portfolio and business model. According to Guerra, the formulation of this ambition presents an opportunity to change the entire materials industry.

Though the conference kicked off with a discussion of why scaling up is so damn hard, this panel nicely tempered the message: yes, that’s true, but integrated measuring and reporting can make the prospect much damn easier.

Ana Bachurova (MBA’14) is a graduate of the Yale School of Management. She has a background in international development, particularly with environmental governance, sustainable development of natural resources, and the water-energy nexus. Her academic and professional interests now focus on the dual linkage between business and sustainability: how business can offer solutions to environmental and societal problems, and how incorporating sustainability in corporate agendas can create value for business and society.

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Making the Big Pivot at Sustainable Brands 2014

by Marissa Galizia

sb2014At the Sustainable Brands San Diego Conference 2014, sustainability and marketing executives from top companies around the world gathered to discuss what their companies are doing to promote greater environmental sustainability while building the value of their brands. The depth of the sustainability programs represented varied from the deep green, like Patagonia and Buycott, to 3M, which had Forest Ethics protesting its use of the infamous SFI certification for its post-it notes from boats on the bay just outside the conference center. Yet, whether the changes the companies had made so far were big or small, the conversations at the conference did prove that corporate America is at the beginning of a great shift towards redefining their brands and the way that customers derive value from their products with health and sustainability in mind. Some companies were just further along than others.

Front and center of this discussion was School of Forestry and pivotEnvironmental Studies alumnus Andrew Winston, who defines this shift as, The Big Pivot, the title of his latest book, which every conference attendee received a copy of. The book describes the challenges that businesses will face given an increasingly resource constrained world due to climate change and population growth. It then provides ten strategies for leaders to use to change the way their companies operate to succeed in this fundamentally changed world. The strategies advocate brilliant things like taking a longer-term view, changing the incentives to engage the whole organization, redefining ROI, inspiring customers to care and use less, and being extremely innovative and collaborative to deeply challenge conventional wisdom. Winston explained these strategies in one of the first plenaries of the conference and they were echoed in speeches and conversations all week long.

I got to sit down with Winston between two sessions to ask him about some of the challenges leaders and companies would face in actually implementing these changes and achieving that paradoxical goal of economic growth while reducing environmental impact that everyone at the conference was after. I am going to focus on two in particular here: the need to innovate away the tradeoffs that are commonly associated with environmentally preferable products so we don’t even need to talk to customers about “sustainability,” while at the same time needing to inspire consumers to care about using less.

winstonThese were both big themes of the conference. In the book, Winston calls for “heretical innovation” such that we create things that are simply better and inherently more sustainable. Recent popular innovations like Uber and Lyft got a great deal of attention for advancing the “sharing” or “collaborative” economy and making it such that people have access to car services, without actually needing to produce any additional cars. They cause us to question our assumptions about needing to own a car. As a result, it can be argued that they are simply better at providing the services that people need, while reducing resource use on new cars.

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