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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Enviro MBAs

Air Date: Week of

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Since the early 90s, more than 50 graduate schools have offered environmental management classes or programs. The goals include showing companies that they can save money by being green. From member station WBEZ in Chicago, Jesse Hardman reports.


CURWOOD: If you want to learn more about environmental science, these days a good place to study may well be a graduate school of business.
Historically, MBA programs and the companies they supply with managers have been skeptical of so-called green economics and business. But, more and more, that’s changing. A combination of regulations, public concerns, and a profit motive have spawned a number of MBA ecology programs over the past decade, with varying degrees of success.
From member station WBEZ in Chicago, Jesse Hardman reports.
HARDMAN: The recent transatlantic business dialogue in Chicago brought CEOs and governmental officials from the U.S. and Europe together. In response, protestors took to the streets to raise issues of sustainability, corporate greed, and the environment.
FEMALE: Cover the issues. Cover the truth.
FEMALE: Cover the issues. Cover the issues. Cover the truth.
HARDMAN: The small but boisterous crowd was largely made up of young twenty-somethings.
HARDMAN: But just down the block from where the protest began, Michael Lewis, Anjana Famis, and Brian Vickens sit in a classroom. As students at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business, the environment is the backbone of their studies.
MALE AT BOARD MEETING: It’s a little bit beyond risk assessment and management. I’m afraid that course would get more off on risk assessment because it’s more interesting to teach.
HARDMAN: At IIT’s environmental management program biannual board meeting, Lewis, Famis, and Vickens are presenting work-related projects they’ve been developing at school.
LEWIS: So, the process that we did was to take this Elmo, cut it open, separate it into its various parts by material, various plastics...
HARDMAN: Michael Lewis has dissected a Tickle-Me-Elmo doll for his project. The goal is to find out how Mattel Corporation, Elmo’s makers, could do a better job of not only using recycled materials, but less materials to make their product.
LEWIS: Looking at each one of these materials from its whole life cycle, the metal that needs to be mined and then reduced to its ore, formed into the screws. The amount of labor that goes into putting it into the actual product itself...
HARDMAN: Lewis has written up a cost analysis plan to show how Mattel could save money by creating a more eco-friendly Elmo.
LEWIS: I feel that environmental management is a good way, when combined at the business level, that these can be quantified and people can see what these benefits are. And, hopefully, eventually realize some increased profits over that, as well as decreased environmental impacts. That’s a lot to get out of Elmo, but... [laughter] ...that’s where we’re at.
HARDMAN: Programs like IIT’s began popping up across the country ten years ago. According to the World Resources Institute, a Washington D.C.-based environmental think tank, there are around 50 graduate schools in the United States with either full-fledged MBA programs or classes in environmental management.
Mike Russo teaches an environmental management course at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business. Russo says over the past ten years there has been a big change in corporate mentality.
RUSSO: Businesses that are wise understand that environmental stewardship can be very consistent with the bottom line, in that companies that ignore environmental imperatives do so at the risk of their business.
HARDMAN: Russo co-authored a study that showed that firms with high environmental standards make a bigger profit than firms without strict standards. He says that evidence has helped convince MBA students of the importance of environmental knowledge.
RUSSO: They realize that for one to advance in a business career, that, just as one’s career would be held back if one didn’t have a working knowledge of, say, accounting in a traditional sense, one’s career could conceivably be held back if, as a rising professional, they didn’t appreciate the costs and benefits of decisions that they make that have environmental ramifications.
HARDMAN: But Russo’s views are not shared by all. Andy King is a management professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. King says many schools have struggled to maintain programs and classes in environmental management. MBA programs that incorporate environmental study do so in a variety of ways, including elective courses, concentrations, and even dual Master’s degrees in business and environmental studies.
King says at top MBA programs, like Dartmouth, Michigan and NYU, despite interest, students are sometimes pressured not to take environmental classes.
KING: When a student goes to a program that involves multiple years, and involves perhaps one year in an environmental science program, they don’t always see that as valuable. And they’re spending, you know, $30-50,000 dollars a year on a business school education, their opportunity cost is a $150,000 dollar job out there, and that $200,000 swing for that extra year doesn’t seem like it’s worth it.
HARDMAN: King also says environmental programs are still viewed as new and controversial by many old-school MBA faculty. He says many environmental management professors hurt their own case by teaching the environment as an advocacy issue. King says for now the best way for programs to attract support, and ultimately students, is to stick to business.
KING: If they go work in a company, I don’t want them to advocate for less pollution because they think it’s moral. I want them to advocate for less pollution because in that case, in that company, given its circumstances, it’ll make money. And I think if you lead with the ethical, I think it’s a much weaker case. I think it’s better to say here are some opportunities where you can make money and do something that’s good for the world, and oh, by the way, isn’t that ethical?
HARDMAN: King says he does think environmental management programs are primed for a breakthrough in the near future. John Challenger, president of Challenger, Gray and Christmas, the nation’s oldest corporate recruiting firm, agrees. Challenger says companies are undergoing a major ideological shift in what they want from MBA students.
CHALLENGER: Hopefully, it’s changed in the wake of the Enron scandals, the Anderson problems, 9/11. Companies are looking for students with higher integrity, with ethics, with character, rather than just for people who are going to push the bottom line.
MALE AT BOARD MEETING: One of the things that you probably haven’t had a chance...
HARDMAN: Back at the Illinois Institute of Technology board meeting, discussions continue on how to improve the environmental management program. School officials say, in addition to regular classes, they’re planning a series of workshops and seminars this year for business leaders. But for the most part, they’re banking on students like Anjana Famis to put their program on the map.
FAMIS: We’re almost kind of the new leaders in companies trying to emphasize the environmental and socially responsible issues more than they traditionally would. So I think they want you to be as smart and as knowledgeable as possible. I think it’s a growing field, a growing industry, and the more you know, the more powerful you're going to be.
HARDMAN: And Famis says as she and her classmates enter the workplace, they’re hoping to convince a business world just starting to get to know them that it can’t live without them.
For Living on Earth, I’m Jesse Hardman in Chicago.
CURWOOD: Just ahead, that special sense of neighborhood that comes with relish and a bun.
You’re listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Alison Brown “Tbe Red Earth” A World Instrumental Collection Putumayo World Music (1996)]



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