By MARTY LEVINE
Maintaining sustainable business practices “is not something that we do on the side,” said Teressa Szelest, president of market and business development for chemical company BASF, at the opening of Pitt’s new Center for Sustainable Business. “It’s how we source products. It’s how we manufacture products. It’s how we keep our people safe. … It’s integrated in every aspect” of how such companies do business.
Promoting sustainable business practices is the center’s mission, and Szelest was among representatives of several corporations already partnering with the center — including IBM and Rome-based energy giant Enel — who spoke at the launch on Oct. 24.
Located at the Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration, the center is led by CB Bhattacharya, the chair in Sustainability and Ethics at Katz. The opening panel discussion, on using partnerships to promote corporate sustainability, also included Andrew McElwaine, vice president of the Heinz Endowments, whose grant seeded the center, and was moderated by Leslie Marshall, the center’s associate director.
Wayne S. Balta, vice president for corporate environmental affairs and product safety at IBM, said the lesson he draws from corporate-academic partnerships is: “Don’t just keep it in the business school. What I haven’t seen any other university do is integrate it with the other colleges.”
He pointed to IBM’s current partnership with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, and the Fund for Lake George, 60 miles north of Rensselaer, which aims to “make Lake George the smartest lake in the world. … to know, model and predict everything that can happen in that lake, to that lake or from that lake.”
Its goal, the project’s website says, is to “create a thorough understanding of the factors that drive the lake’s food web and overall water quality … (as) a blueprint to preserve important lakes, rivers and other bodies of fresh water around the globe.”
McElwaine said Pitt’s community engagement centers in Homewood and the Hill District are good models of academic-community partnerships: “This is not so much academic as social. My hope is, going forward, that these types of partnerships … reap more than just better profits and better profitability, but a social return.”
Marcus Krembs, director of sustainability for Enel North America, said his company is partnering with the world: using an “open innovation platform … to crowd source solutions to our most pressing challenges” concerning renewable energy. Sustainability issues being tackled via such efforts include utility-scale energy generation — trying to solve the need for large arrays of solar panels to intrude on agricultural lands — and how to deal with aging wind-power generators, whose materials are not easily recyclable or reusable.
“You can learn a lot from your failures,” he added, which is why Enel runs an annual “My Best Failure” contest as a platform for sharing what can be learned from things that didn’t work.
“We’ve got to move these partnerships down from thought leadership to action leadership,” Szelest said. “We need to bring (results) down to an actionable item.”
Fielding an audience question about how to move discussions of climate change out of the realm of politics, the panelists agreed that companies and municipal agencies below the federal level were already doing so — with various motivations.
“It's probably happening faster than had it come out of Washington, D.C.,” Szelest said. “We know it’s the right thing to do, and we want to be a leader” — while keeping economic factors in mind, she said.
“The politics of the day haven’t mattered,” Balta said. “You just do it because you know it makes sense from a long-term perspective. People who do this don’t turn it on and off because of the results of an election.”
“It’s already happening,” especially in cities, Krembs said. “They’re motivated by cost and risk avoidance,” and not by federal mandates, he asserted.
Having worked previously for a company whose top official had a signed copy of a book by a climate-change denier in his office, Krebs added: “That culture of climate deniers within large companies was something I felt — but I had to learn to speak their language. Find out what’s most pertinent (to the company’s success) and speak that language,” he advised.
Concluded Szelest: “There is no such thing as a sustainable solution” — just evolving solutions to evolving problems. “I think change management is the biggest challenge. My biggest job is to make sure the (corporate) culture is evolving as fast as society is.”
Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com or 412-758-4859.
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