Solar panels outside of Georgetown University townhouses.

Why should a multinational financial services company like Wells Fargo think about environmental sustainability? Because if he was looking for growth opportunities in, say, the dairy sector, a huge operational expense mitigates the environmental impacts.

Whether Wells Fargo invests in environmentally responsible practices through regulatory mandates or through a sense of social responsibility, there is a business case for sustainability, says Vishal Agrawal, p.Distinguished Associate Professor of rovost and Henry J. Blommer Family Chair in Sustainable Business at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.

This is not just a hypothetical case study for Georgetown McDonough students. As part of the emphasis on experiential learning – and in response to a growing interest in environmental stewardship on the part of students and consumers – students have recently sought opportunities for sustainable growth in the sectors. dairy and agricultural for Wells Fargo. They studied climate-related risks in West African supply chains in search of more sustainable cocoa farming. And they worked with a financial services company to measure the carbon footprint of its remote workforce in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The business case for sustainability

“These are examples of really practical and important issues that we are working on,” Agrawal said. Poets and Quants. “The results are really useful for businesses, and students learn a lot of skills that are scalable and applicable to whatever they do in the future.”

Vishal Agrawal

McDonough School offers a growing list of courses and study programs focused on environmental sustainability in the context of business, from the Sustainable Business Fellows Program for undergraduates to a new MS in Environmental and Environmental Management. sustainability which will welcome its first students next August. Georgetown also offers an MBA Certificate in Sustainable Business.

Agrawal is also the Academic Director of McDonough’s latest initiative to prepare new and future leaders to present a business case for sustainability. The Corporate sustainability initiative launched about two weeks ago and now serves as an umbrella for its sustainable classes. Its mission is to “focus on sustainability in the business context” through student learning, thought leadership and research, and bring together stakeholders in business, policy and expertise. university.

Agrawal sat down with Poets and Quants to discuss why it’s good for business to embrace sustainability and why today’s business students need these skills.

How did you start to think about the intersection of business and environmental sustainability?

My initial training was in engineering and operations research, which involves solving difficult problems in mathematics and economics. When I started my PhD program 15 or 16 years ago, I wanted to solve interesting and compelling problems, and I was drawn to sustainability which was still an early concept in the business world. The sustainability issues are difficult. They force you to harness the power of different disciplines to do good. It’s great that some people improve the algorithms in seconds but that’s not what I wanted to do.

One of the things that attracted me to Georgetown College 11 years ago is that Georgetown is a place that naturally lends itself very well to examining sustainability, especially in connecting politics and deals. Georgetown and Washington, DC, is a perfect place to be in this regard. Georgetown also places an emphasis on society. Finally, the challenges of sustainable development are always global in nature no matter what you talk about, and this is also where Georgetown shines.

Have you noticed an increase in the interest of business students in sustainability over the past decade?

Yes. Student interest is through the roof. All the program offerings we have developed on this topic are packed. The students are really interested and passionate about it. Not just from the business school, but also from other schools on campus who want to understand how businesses view sustainability.

What is interesting is that there has also been an evolution on the business side. When I started out, many of my conversations with business tended to be, “Why should we think about sustainability? What’s the business case for? The conversation is a little different these days. Businesses know they want to do something, but they want to know how to do it.

There is also an interesting development in terms of what our students need to know when working in sustainability jobs. Fifteen years ago, some companies might have someone responsible for sustainable development who would generally be like Environment, Health and Safety. This is no longer the case. We are now at the stage where most of our MBA students or graduates will be dealing with sustainability in one way or another. We have students now working in the supply chain for Amazon or Starbucks, and at first glance it’s not sustainability work, but they’ll tell you that they spend a lot of their work thinking sustainable development, because this is an integral part. Now some of our students are going to work on Wall Street and want to understand ESG (environmental, social and governance investing) and sustainability because it’s going to be part of their job. Some of them work for Amazon in tech, but want to understand how sustainability will intersect with them. One of the things I always say now is that whatever industry or functional area a student is going to work in, they need to understand how sustainability fits into that and how to fit it into the decision making.

What is the business case for sustainability?

It’s a centerpiece of how we approach sustainability at McDonough School of Business. There are many reasons why businesses should focus on sustainability or social responsibility. The most obvious, and some of my colleagues will tell you as well, is the ethical reason for doing so. That’s what you should do. What I want to focus on, and what we’ve learned resonates a lot with companies as well, is what I call the ‘business approach to sustainability’ or ‘the business case for sustainability’.

This means that I’m not just going to tell you to do something good for the environment or society just because it’s the right thing to do. What I’m going to do is be able to help you identify how this can be good for your business as well. It is usually much easier to get companies to do something about sustainability if it also aligns with their business model and understands the constraints of their business operations.

If I put my hat on as a business professor, I say that we have to help companies make these decisions in the context of business and understand that. If you want to influence businesses and businesses and organizations to be more sustainable, you need to talk about their incentives. And it can be a variety of things. Generally, we think about efficiency and cost reduction. Or there is something that is expensive in the short run, but will lower your risk in the long run. Many businesses that depend on natural resources take sustainability very seriously with the threat of climate change. They invest hundreds of millions of dollars in some cases because they face this existential crisis, 40 to 50 years later, of not being able to access their supplies.

The reason we have chosen this type of approach for the initiative is that it gives students the skills to be able to take on these kinds of challenges for any employer they will have in the future. . Whether it’s a publicly traded company, a company that’s very innovative when it comes to sustainability, or maybe it’s just trying to get a foothold in sustainability. This makes our students very well prepared for the business world.

How did this idea become the Business Sustainability Initiative at McDonough?

Although the initiative was launched just a few weeks ago, we have been developing it internally for some time.

A lot of the activities we did and the classes we offered were slow and organic. And, many other centers and initiatives that are not primarily focused on sustainability at McDonough are also working on related issues. What we noticed was that there was an incredible amount of demand – from employers, businesses, even in terms of demographic research, as well as students – for all of these different things that we were doing. So we thought it was a very good idea to do it in a more systematic way.

Six or seven years ago I started teaching key sustainability courses – sustainable operations, sustainable business models, supply chains – and those were kind of completed. At the same time, we started doing these synthesis and internship courses where students were actively working on real projects with international companies and NGOs around sustainable development. This naturally led us to launch the MBA certificate in sustainable business which allows our students to really specialize in sustainable companies and above all to signal to employers that they have the expertise or the knowledge of the space. Just a few months ago, we launched a MS in Environmental and Sustainability Management, which will host its first class in August. It is an interdisciplinary degree that combines science and business to tackle these issues. So in some ways we started with the courses and then we added certificates, internships and experiential projects, and that slowly developed into the initiative.

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